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The Collected Tales of Our Glorious Originators and Their Journeys Through Time Immemorial

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     What is on the other side of the door?

     You have probably asked yourself this question many times, especially if you are one of a certain motley band of teenagers responsible for creating a Universe from the belly of a tadpole. If you are a Witch, at some point you have likely heard the sound that only a tiny set of underdeveloped wiggler teeth can make as it tears through the curtain you’ve hung up in its room, and thought to yourself Oh for the love of Bilious, what is that little scamp getting up to now? Or if you are a Knight, you have heard the loud thump of your husband bashing his toe against the leg of the wardrobe and chuckled at his loud stream of characteristic obscenities. If you are a teenage hero, you have encountered many doors in many eras, of many shapes and colors that give way to strange new worlds. You have met with new faces, new friends, and new adventures – all on the other side of the threshold. But what is on the other side of the door? The first door. You know the door I’m talking about.

 

     John Egbert twists the doorknob to the Ultimate Reward, and when he crosses the entryway he falls into nothingness. 

     What did you expect would be there, a lobby with a receptionist? Ring the bell and receive a deluxe train ticket to Paradise? No, there isn’t any ground under John Egbert’s feet as he tumbles and tumbles. Beneath him is only empty space – not the Medium, not the Incipisphere, real outer space. The nearest star is lightyears away, and the horizon is pierced with the shining of nebulas. It might be very beautiful if he was not trying to avoid asphyxiation in zero gravity.

     John Egbert yanks molecules of oxygen from the ether of space and stuffs them inside of his lungs the way an indulgent squirrel makes off with the acorns under your oak tree. And when his friends cross the threshold and fall inelegantly to the same fate, John does the same for them. Jade Harley, who is quite familiar with the vacuum of Space, helps him pick up the slack. Now Jake English is a bit purple in the face, and Terezi Pyrope’s mouth is frozen in a jagged, pointy scream. Before their blood vessels burst like balloons, Jade Harley takes the terraformed Earth and tosses it before her friends in a manner that suggests she would be a very good baseball pitcher. With Witchery, the planet crackles with static electricity and grows to its proper size. John Egbert’s face meets the dirt before you can say transportilization

     Fresh air burns in their chests. You know how this feels even if you have not violently reentered Earth’s atmosphere – at some point in your life you have emerged from the public pool gasping for gulps of oxygen after trying to find out, your cheeks filled with air, how long you could last underwater. John Egbert has a hazy thought like this when he pushes himself up from the moss and soil. Jane Crocker does, too. Dave Strider does not, because he has never been to a public pool, but Rose Lalonde has experienced something similar enough beneath the bubbles of her bathtub. 

     No one has the first word when this ragtag, gangly group of heroes faceplants into the ground. In the grassy grove they’ve landed in, there erupts a chorus of groans. A young buck dashes into the trees. It does not look quite like the deer Jane Crocker remembers seeing from her bedroom window, eating maple leaves from her backyard and leaping over suburban fences. Centuries have passed in Jade Harley’s outstretched palm. Evolution can be a strange and unpredictable thing.

     In these types of situations it is very easy to get lost in your emotions and wonder just what the hell you are supposed to do now. Twenty minutes ago, Roxy Lalonde discovered what troll flesh sounds like when a Chinatown katana tears through the abdomen. Fifteen minutes ago, Karkat Vantas was hogtied by a sprightly leprechaun. There is still quite a bit of adrenaline running through these little daredevils’ veins. They are practically chomping at the bit for one last bite of heroic action – except perhaps the adults in this arrangement, but Mr. Crocker has just concluded a long vacation and is willing to follow his daughter into any fray she desires. And who are we kidding; when has one’s feelings of tremendous relief to be alive, of confusion or trepidation, ever prevented these children from launching headfirst into some foolhardy task? They have had three years to rest. Now the real work begins.

     Rose Lalonde is the first to point out the overgrown meteor in the tangle of thickets above. Sunlight coasts through the trees and dapples its broken window panes. The meteor they called home splashed into the sea many eons ago, or hours ago if your name is Jade Harley, and whatever possessions they held dear are likely long gone. One day, the settlement around this site will be called Meteor Mound, and the ancient artifacts inside will be held sacred and divine. Here is where gods met, where humans and trolls and Carapacians walked together to form the first post-Earth society. Right now, it is where the last ectobiology lab remains. The Earth is very empty, and very lonely, and it is time to lift up civilization by its bootstraps.

     This is, in effect, what Rose Lalonde tells her comrades as she points her finger dramatically to the ruined meteor above. Her statement, made less stoic with the off-kilter skew of her headband, is met with a series of eye rolls and grins.

     A great number of friends are needed to resurrect intelligent life. John Egbert has tried his hand at the art of ectobiology, but a certain matronly benefactor did all the heavy lifting for him. And while Karkat Vantas has also dipped his toe into this field, it’s been quite a few years, and subsequent experiments in the lab over the course of that time have yielded less than nothing. We could stand idly by and allow this group of amateur biologists to create a monstrous founder effect from their own limited gene pool, thus resulting in generations of thin-skinned Habsburgs with bad joints and alopecia, or we could step aside and let the experts handle it. Enter stage left: a team of Carapacian soldiers and scientists. They’re fresh off the Prospitian Royal Navy Ship Basilica, and armed to the teeth with both war-induced trauma and copious knowledge of yoinking strings of ancient DNA from just about anything.

     If we leave them in the good democratically-voted care of the Mayor and the Parcel Mistress, I think we can comfortably call this task complete.

     At this point there is a long, long laundry list of topics we could discuss. We could discuss Jade Harley. In what presidence she still possesses over the Green Sun, she trains her keen canine eye on the cosmos, and in her textbook knowledge of astronomy and physics, picks a real star to pull Earth within its orbit, with two nice, sizable satellites to tug upon its oceans. We could discuss the Carapacians who can scarcely carry the grubs and infants crawling all over the lab, the Dersites who are preventing a teal-blooded grub from take a bite out of a redheaded baby’s shoulder, and how Kanaya Maryam weeps as Rose Lalonde places an indigo-blooded wiggler in her arms. We could discuss Mr. Crocker packing his pipe with tobacco as he points out the structural damage done to the meteor over time, which would normally bore his daughter to tears, but right now Jane Crocker is happy to listen to her father ramble about any subject at all. And that wouldn’t cover the half of it. There’s Jake English discussing the logistics of a post-apocalyptic day care center with Roxy Lalonde, and the chorus of shrieks that arises when Jasprose and Davepeta come crashing out of a fenestrated window, the latter’s claws still stained with cherub blood. 

     I could go on, but that isn’t what you came here for. You’re here for the after after the after, after Dave Strider has scrubbed wiggler spit-up from his cape and after Terezi Pyrope is finished taste-testing the paradox slime of some ancient human. You have already seen something like this scene up close and personal, haven’t you, and wouldn’t it be a little silly to rehash an old story? There are other old stories to rehash, those which didn’t make the cut, ones that perhaps you haven’t heard before. 

     This tale, right here and now, is warm and familiar to you. It’s brimming with hope and the promise of a tabula rasa. So let’s move on.

     What happens after the after?

Chapter Text

 

     The year 2941 is wild, untamed.

 

 

     The caverns are echoing with the drip-drip-drip of water. Lanterns cast ripples of yellow light across puddles, and stalagmites shine with salt. Deep in the rocky pit, merely minutes ago, there was an egg as hard and as rough as basalt, crusted over and sprouting growths of keratin. Now the shell has split into stringy strands of gooey membrane, and what emerges is the viscous, wriggling body of a baby Mother Grub. The very first Mother Grub that Earth has ever seen, and no one but Kanaya Maryam can appreciate the full gravity of the situation. Tears stream down her face as the Grub opens her jaw and begins to devour her eggshell. Her moth wings are plastered to her body with the jelly of the egg’s lining.

     Rose Lalonde holds her girlfriend’s hand and whisks it with the back-and-forth of her thumb. 

     “Shall I fetch the others?” Rose asks. Softly, gently. “Wouldn’t Karkat and Terezi like to see this?”
     “Not yet,” whispers Kanaya. She wipes away a green track of tears with the heel of her palm. “Give me a moment longer. I just… want to look at her.”
     “She’s… very pretty,” Jade offers. 

     It does not come across as sincere, but Kanaya snorts with laughter anyway. The Mother Grub they gaze upon is downright hideous – she has enough self-awareness to realize this – nevertheless, she’s the most beautiful thing Kanaya has ever seen.

     Behind them are Carapacians who assisted in scouting for a nice, cool place for the Mother Grub to roost. They peer over the ledge, cautiously regarding the pearly, marble-white mass of her. There’s a crickle crack when she flexes her legs and scrabbles for footing in the slick stone walls. Her eyes will not open for another month or so. The humans in this cavern trust Kanaya when she says this – she has trained for this moment all her life. 

     Among the chess folk is a hushed, reverent silence. Something about the Grub stirs a familiar feeling in them. Perhaps the clear, slimy egg of a tadpole yet to hatch. No Carapacian has ever seen a holy frog emerge, and this is probably the closest to a divine experience they will ever have. A Prospitian woman murmurs a prayer to herself.

     Kanaya wants this moment to last forever. The small, dainty movements of the Grub as she wriggles in her slime, the click of her jaw as she yawns, twitching eyelids searching for the source of the noises above. Her girlfriend’s hand in hers, warm and firm and safe. But Ms. Maryam is a woman of action, and like the past forty-eight hours of her life or so, there is a grueling amount of work to be done. The Carapacians are the only creatures old enough to care for the Mother Grub. They need all the necessary literature, the training, oh Christ, the endless training. And there will need to be renovations to the caverns, space for the jadebloods to brood and to care for their ward.

     “As much as I would love us all to pat ourselves on the backs for our exceptional work,” she says with a little sigh, “raising the Mother Grub is an exhausting task, and we have only just begun. Our Carapacian compatriots will bear the brunt of her upbringing until the jadebloods are mature enough to take over, which means I must come up with some form of passable checklist for them to follow.” Kanaya brushes the dust from her skirt with her free hand. “This is going to be very fucking hard.”
     “You mean you intend to leave her with the jadebloods alone?” Rose asks.
     This question strikes Kanaya as surprising and as foolish as the idea of caste roles, good or bad, strikes Rose as distasteful. “Of course. I thought that was obvious.”
     “Why?” Jade blurts. 

     The Witch has had little to say thus far. Shell-shocked as she is to be surrounded by friends who do not hate her for allowing her brother to perish, she lurks quietly in the shadows of others. Studying movements with her Bec ears twitching. Jade has passively absorbed the events of today and snatches the window of opportunity to contribute to conversation. Her question, Kanaya thinks, is just as absentminded as Rose’s, but the tone of it is different. Jade’s voice is low, an odd inflection caused by social isolation and a habit of going days at a time without speaking. So Kanaya is willing to cut her fellow Space player some slack and answer her question the way you would explain to a wiggler why the moons are pink and green.

     “Jadebloods are hatched to care for the Mother Grub. We have a historical, instinctive bond with them that goes back countless millennia.” Kanaya gestures to the Grub, who is still sticky with jade-tinted goo. “Hell, you only have to look at her. The Grub herself is a jadeblood.”

     Jade makes an incredulous sound, while Rose rubs the back of her neck.

     “Weren’t you the one who told me, Jade, that you believed I was meant to raise the Grub? That it would be, and I quote, ‘a really cool family legacy?’”
     Jade only shrugs. “Maybe. I don’t really remember.”
     Kanaya pinches the bridge of her nose. “I’m loathe to play the race card, but as humans, there simply is not an adequate way to make you understand the depth and nuance to the situation. I know you have likely heard many horror stories of what the caste system did to Alternia and its people–”
     Rose says “I have” at the same time Jade says “I haven’t,” but Kanaya continues to speak over them.
     “– but the roles of blood castes are not solely meant to cause pain and suffering. We know this from stories of our ancestors on Beforus. Upholding the time-honored tradition of jadeblood broodsmanship is nowhere in the vicinity of equivalent to the oppressive conditions enforced by the Empire.”
     “Kanaya, if we leave these people with the idea that jadebloods alone are up to the task of tending to the Grub, will it not devalue the work that the Carapacians must do before there are trolls old enough to take over? And if one caste role remains, what’s to stop other stark divisions to rise among the people? What’s to stop seadwellers from imposing royal rule on the lower ranks, what’s to stop the purplebloods from placing the lowbloods in a psychic chokehold? Don’t you think it seems a bit gauche to immediately implant the same pillars of caste division upon a fledgling civilization? The Grub can’t even see yet, Kanaya. If you’re willing to leave her in the care of non-trolls to begin with, why should brooding duties be limited to trolls of a certain hue?”
     The rapidfire barrage of hypotheticals is starting to fluster Kanaya. “You seem to be insinuating that I wish them to be shackled down here for all eternity. On Alternia, it was mandatory for one of jade blood to take up cavern duties once they were able. I would never wish a troll to be bound to such a sacred duty if her whole heart was not committed to the job.” She presses a glowing hand to her chest. “That, my dear, would be gauche.”
     “Why are you arguing about this?” asks Jade. It’s a blunt question that knocks both girls off their feet.
     “We aren’t – why would you thi–”
     “This isn’t an argument!” Kanaya shouts abruptly. There is a sharp, shrill tone to it that causes the Carapacians to flinch. 

     It surprises the Mother Grub, too. The noise echoes off of the rock and takes her off guard as she’s gnawing on the curl of keratin growing off of her cracked eggshell. She makes a strangled sound, and a ripple runs down her stubby, segmented body. Kanaya has heard this sound in a different pitch only once in her life, because her lusus was a massive thing and could swallow most objects – whether a fallen tree or a stack of freshly-chainsawed daywalkers – with ease. Only once, when a broken femur became lodged in her throat, has Kanaya ever had to undergo the high-stress task of clearing her lusus’ airway. It was a clumsy process that involved climbing atop her back and stomping on the back of her chitinous neck, but the Grub was tough, and in moments she was right as rain. This Grub is helpless, though. Fear seizes her, and as the Grub trembles, struggling to swallow her meal, Kanaya prepares to lunge into the pit.

     But a Carapacian beats her to it.

     She’s a twiggy little Dersite from offboard the Basilica – there’s a dent in her head from some long-ago battlefield injury. Rocks hiss underfoot as she slides down the ledge, upending pebbles in her wake. Kanaya’s hands fly to her mouth when the Dersite woman picks the Grub up and lands a firm karate chop where the soft skin of her skull meets the back of her neck. The Grub wretches, and the Dersite squeezes hard under her abdomen. Her body convulses, and the chunk of eggshell pops out of her mouth with all the grace of a cat hacking up a hairball. The fragment of keratin is half-melted with emerald stomach acid.

     Satisfied, she places the Grub safely in her puddle of goop. Then she wipes her hands off on her chiton and climbs out of the pit, where her fellows pat her on the back for a job well done. Down below, the Grub licks her chops and begins to eat the fried gunk that just shot out of her throat.

     “How – what did you–” Kanaya sputters. Rose has heard this frantic, spittle-inducing tone fewer times than she could count on one hand, but Jade has heard it never. She laughs quietly as the dignified image she had of Rose’s girlfriend unravels.
     “Oh, s’simple Mum,” the Dersite modestly offers. “Folks of Prospit all trained how’s to proper care of a Genesis Frog, even if they won’t never be seeing one. S’a bit of a trick I picked ups from them while we were on the ship, yeah.”
     “It–” Kanaya closes her mouth, then opens it again. “You–”
     “You did a very good job,” Jade says.
     “Your response time was impeccable,” praises Rose.
     “You… yes, those statements are accurate,” Kanaya concedes. “What is your name?”
     The Dersite taps her shell. “Er, on the moons was I called the Booklet Lithographer on account of me working in the rag business, printin’ the illustrations,” she says. “Upon the ships were my name the Benevolent Liaison due to taskin’ with the support groups ‘mong the chess folk.”
     “Support groups…?” Rose asks.
     “The Carapacians are a war-torn people,” Jade answers in her low, low voice. She fiddles with her sleeves as she speaks. “Many of them formed support circles on the ship to sort through the trauma they faced on the battlefield.”
     “Now me suppose I’m….” B.L. looks about, confused. Her compatriots tilt their heads and give her blank, questioning looks.

     Rose finds it bleak and distasteful that the Carapacians name themselves for their tasks, their duties, their notable traits. It’s impersonal, she believes, and devalues a person down to what they may contribute to society. Not very socialist, she might add. But the chess folks see it differently. Their names, their titles, are a point of pride. This is what I am, it announces proudly, This is how I make Prospit wonderful, this is how I keep Derse running. It’s free to flow and change, shifting as the Carapacian sees the need. 

     It’s something Jade admires about her shipmates, and something she wished for herself. She would’ve liked to be the Jovial Horticulturist, the Judicious Holiness, something with a clear-cut description. Yes, Jade remembers the Benevolent Liaison. She did not join their meetings, but she listened to them through the vents, dropped eaves from the other side of the wall. To hear an encouraging word, to receive somebody’s empathy, even if vicariously. Wouldn’t it have just made things worse for them if they knew their Heir was dead?

     Such is the tangent running through Jade’s head right now. But B.L. is still scratching her head. Jade pushes her bangs from her face and rests a hand on the Dersite’s shoulder. Today, a Carapacian receives a new name.

     “Well, I guess this makes you the Broodcavern Lookout.”
     “The Broodmaster Luminary?” interjects Rose.
     “The b… the… I,” Kanaya trails. Rose and Jade simply stare at her, and despite all of her immortal, sunshiney vampiric energy, she is simply too weary to fight them. The glow of her skin seems to dim as she sighs and puts a hand on her hip. “Whichever, then. I leave the decision in your capable hands.”
     “Which name do you like best?” Jade asks, her ears wiggling.
     “Oh – ehm, I’m findings both to be plenty pretty,” B.L. stutters, starstruck. “Perhaps the Ladies may decides ‘mongst themselves?”

     Jade and Rose exchange looks.

     “Broodcavern Luminary it is,” Rose decides.
     “I was going to say Broodmaster Lookout.”
     “They both do the job, don’t they?”
     “I guess so….”
     “Welcome to the crew, Broodcavern Luminary,” Kanaya says with a polite nod and a rubber-tight smile.

     B.L. looks positively overjoyed. Her feet clack on the rock as she bounces excitedly, and her comrades congratulate her christening with whoops and hollers and nudges on the arm. 

     The display of camaraderie is endearing, but somehow painful to Kanaya. Painful how? Their happiness doesn’t feel like something she can partake in. The sense of a shared goal, cloaked in the warm, dark solitude of the brooding caverns. The reassurance of a daily routine, that you and your fellow jadebloods were all serving the same noble, sacred goal – all the simple pleasures Kanaya was never able to experience. It’s all very silly. After all the adventures she’s had –  a lifetime of daywalkers and bright sunlight and hurtling meteors and learning what human words like “litty” mean – all she wants is to preserve the modest legacy of her long-late lusus. She must remind herself that it’s not foolish to shoot for a modicum of normalcy. It doesn’t all have to be space travel and showdowns with villains – is it not enough just to bask in the flickering torches that line the brooding enclaves, to hear the gentle hum-clicking of grubs spinning their cocoons in the fissures of the rock face? Is it so awful to want somewhere to belong, with people who are just like you?

     This world will have no imperial drones, there will be no pailing against the threat of execution – Kanaya knows that grasping onto even a tiny nub of tradition will not ruin the future of these trolls. It isn’t a bad caste division, she tells herself. And yet, and yet, and yet….

     “Kanaya? Are you okay?” Jade asks. Her mass of hair has fallen in front of her face, and she peers at her with one big, green eye.
     “Huh? I’m….”
     “Look at them, dear,” says Rose as she leans into her girlfriend’s height. Her hand is still clasping Kanaya’s, and Ms. Maryam becomes aware that her grip on Rose is a bit constricting. “Look how happy they are.”

     Kanaya loosens her python grip on her girlfriend’s hand. Rose is so sneaky with her roundabout persuasion. Leave it to a Lalonde to twist her hair ‘round her finger and tell you that she’s still working through the SBURB manuals on the second shelf, because the truth is that she is simply too short to reach the higher-up volumes, and you should probably consider bringing in a stepladder or else just take them off the shelf for her. Look how happy they are . Rose realizes that she’s struck a nerve by insinuating that Kanaya is being a problematic casteist, and has resorted to guerilla warfare. Gosh, they do look excited, don’t they? Damn it, Lalonde, Maryam thinks to herself. Her wiles know no bounds.

     “I suppose… it wouldn’t do any harm, to relax the restrictions on blood color,” she finally sighs.

     The Broodcavern Luminary is beaming.

     “Of course they’ll still require rigorous training before I can leave her in their hands permanently,” Kanaya continues. Some sort of cave moth is attracted to the dim glow of her exoskeleton, and the Sylph swats it away. “I have to vet them, I have to set up a rigorous syllabus, I have–”
     “We can do that together, Kanaya,” says Rose. Her little dimples carve out her cheeks as she gives her girlfriend a gentle smile. “You’ve forgotten how much over-the-shoulder reading I’ve done during the past three years. I’ve watched you study your old wiggler handbooks a hundred times over.”
     “I don’t know anything about anything,” Jade pipes up, “but I’m willing to learn! The forefront of my studies was always physics, but I’ve dipped my toe in biology more than a few times. And anyhow, writing up a course guide sounds pretty fun! I’m sure I could be of some use, if you’d like.”
     “Kanaya will definitely need as many studious minds as she can get, won’t you?” says Rose, twirling a coil of her bleached hair..
     Ms. Maryam swallows her pride and allows her shoulders to slacken. “Yes. I’m certain I will.”

     Jade hops up on a broad, flat stone that’s slick with tracks of salty, hardened water. She places her hands on her hips, a hazy shadow against the low light of the cavern. The Carapacians latch their focus onto her, the Princess of Prospit they’ve followed these past three years – some for the span of her life. Ms. Harley has a way of wrapping them ‘round her finger, even without a fluffy golden ball gown to announce her royal status. 

     “All right! We’re going to need a lot of helping hands to make sure the Mother Grub can resurrect a whole species! I need a show of hands, all right? Who among us has medical training?”
     “I’m having that’s sort of learning, Miss Princess,” says a Prospitian with scratches across his shell. “Studious Physician at your serving, Mum.”
     “An aye from me as well, Witch,” shouts a Dersite. “Curative Quack’s being my name.”
     “Maybe not him,” Rose mutters to Kanaya.
     “Okay, I like all the hands I’m seeing!” Jade nods. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised, you all probably know a lot about battlefield mending, don’t you? Next, who has experience working with animals?”
     “Eclectic Entomologist,” offers a bowing Dersite woman. “And the one what’s my own apprentice, Zoological Intern.”
     “How about child care? Who has ever worked with rearing young?” Jade asks.
     Fewer hands go up –  no wonder, given their exceptionally long lifespans. Two Prospitians raise their hands. “Battlement Governess and Fretful Nursemaid, Miss Witch,” they volunteer.

     Jade flashes Kanaya a big smile. It’s still a little fake – like her heart’s not really in it – but it’s made more endearing by the sheen of her canines.

     “See? We have a team of folks who already have the foundations of knowledge! And with how quickly they learn, and how genius they are at complicated bioengineering like ectobiology, and how they basically live forever , we’ve got one hell of a troop for you, Kanaya!”
     “And I’m here to be of assisting, as well,” says the Broodcavern Luminary.
     Rose pats her girlfriend on the arm. “The Grub’s going to be in excellent hands, love.” She drops her voice low to add a furtive murmur: “Don’t forget that we have Time players on our side. If you’re worried for her welfare, we can always check on her in a couple of decades and wind back the clock if they’ve managed to screw her up somehow.”
     “Thank you for placing such a frightening hypothetical in my mind before the Grub has even had a chance to expel her first refuse slurry,” replies Kanaya. “The sentiment is appreciated nonetheless.”

     For the first time, Kanaya clears her throat to address the scouting team. As she does so, her skin glows with a brighter, warmer hue. It casts a halo across the eager faces waiting for her next word.

     “Your willingness to participate in my species’ resurrection is admirable, and I’m very grateful,” she begins. “As you already know, my friends and I don’t… plan on staying here for very long.”

     A sober silence falls over them. They shuffle their shelled feet and avoid looking at her, like a child who has grown past crying when their mother leaves for work, but is still quite unhappy to see her go. 

     “I’m sure you have complicated feelings about our decision, but it all ensures that you have the freedom of crafting a world that you want to live in. Some of us may be conditionally immortal, but it doesn’t mean that we must rule over you as you create a new society. You’ve been around for quite some time. You’ve endured war, tyranny, isolation, even exile… that is to say, you have much more experience than us. You know what a fair society doesn’t look like – so you know how to build one that is.” Kanaya folds her hands before her. “Caring for the Mother Grub will be an undertaking, and you will have to rely on ectobiology before she’s matured enough to intake genetic material. I’m not going to let you do it alone, though. For a little while, at least, we will remain to train you for this momentous task.”

     “Good job convincing her, Rose,” Jade whispers as Kanaya is giving her speech. “Were you always so good at giving puppy eyes?”
     “Puppy eyes? Why, I did no such thing,” responds Rose with a little wink. Jade nudges her in the arm, and they laugh together under their breath. “In all seriousness, thank you. Kanaya has dealt with my unique brand of discourse since day one of our drab field trip. I don’t think we could’ve gotten through to her without fresh banter.”
     “Prospit dreamers gotta stick together. That’s what she told me, anyway. You’re welcome for basically saving trollkind from benevolent caste division.”
     Rose gives Jade a tight, close-mouthed smile that, despite its genuineness, makes the corners of her mouth turn downward. “I missed you, Harley.”
     “I missed you too, you big dork.”

     “Thank you, really, each one of you. It must appear as though the heroic duties have been reserved for us alone, that you didn’t have important roles to play if you weren’t royalty, or that you stopped mattering after the game had been played. That couldn’t be further from the truth. You still have a life to live. With all of us working together, that life could be truly wonderful.”

     She says this with her fist curled in conviction, a gesture Rose has seen many times, typically when Vriska has irked her, or when a certain passage of an old left-behind tome has stumped them both. Kanaya has never vied for the spotlight, even when the narrative forces of fate have shone it down upon her. For a reluctant protagonist, Rose thinks Kanaya wears the role very well. Being a leader suits her. 

     “If you will have me as your teacher, we can raise this world’s first fledgling Mother Grub,” Kanaya says. “Will you help me?”

     There is a pause during which Kanaya’s undead heart does not beat. Then, all at once, the scouting team goes up in a roar of cheering. It’s hard to notice, but Jade and Rose see it – a glaze of tears shines across her bright, golden eyes. Kanaya looks to them with a shaky smile, her little fangs quivering. Jade wraps her up in a hug before she can burst into joyful tears.

     “About that syllabus,” Jade says, “we should probably get to work on it as soon as possible.”
     “I’ll get the books,” says Rose, brushing her hand gently across her girlfriend’s arm. “And let me talk to the others. I know they’re jonesing to get the hell out of here, but they’ll understand why we have to put off our grand exit.”

     They probably tell Kanaya a few more things between pats on the back, congratulatory hugs, and over-eager questions, but Ms. Maryam’s focus is somewhere else at the moment. 

     Her eyes travel back to the edge of the pit, where the Grub is still writhing in her own goop. She’s finished her first meal, and nothing remains of the eggshell. She’s beginning to spin her web now, nourished enough to spit streams of silk from her salivary glands. All the teeth in her jaw click-click-click as she does so. It’s a sound with which Kanaya is familiar. A memory she had almost forgotten, buried under time and the dank darkness of a dreary meteor. Yes, Kanaya remembers when her lusus used to make this sound. As a virgin Grub she could only produce a little silk, not enough for a cocoon, but during Kanaya’s wigglerhood, she would craft a little nest for her, big enough to crawl inside of so she could guard her against the warmth of her fleshy thorax. As Kanaya drifted to sleep, her lusus’ jaw would grind, a soft and comforting clicking as her jagged needle-legs packed the silk together. It fascinated her, watching her spin spit into armor. Even in her brief second life as a sprite, the Grub would knit it together to trap underlings under its nets. Perhaps that was why Kanaya took up sewing in the first place. Something that made her similar to her Mother.

     It won’t be her memory alone any longer. This Grub will be Mother to thousands, she will oversee her children as they flourish in a brand new world. A kind of troll that has never seen an imperial drone, who will never know the terror of the trials, who will bow to no empress. Kanaya blinks, and the unshed tears stream down her face. She wipes them away with the heel of her hand. 

     Today is the day that the world begins. The Sylph is ready for it. Are you?

Chapter Text

The Collected Tales of Our Glorious Originators and Their Journeys Through Time Immemorial
Copyright © 5219 Herazade Engley & Zeliny Capora

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher.

Originally Printed in Old Europa
First Printing, 5084

ISBN 1-4106124-1-3

Echidna’s Quill Publishing House
45 Transept Crossing, Suite B
Parlourhouse, OE, Hemeran CXZ-043

 

 

Praise for The Collected Tales

“A classic for both grubs growing up with these tales and older admirers of the fairytale genre … Engley’s writing is as evocative today as when your lusus propped the book before you at three years old….”

–  Triona Reffea, Hemeranite Review

 

“A must-have for nostalgics … simple yet straightforward.”

– Wary Wordsmith, Author of The Handmaid’s Wail

 

“Capora’s striking, symbolic illustration pairs perfectly with Engley’s time-tested verbosity.”

– Lorra Y. Lalonde, Mothermount Monthly  

 

 

Acknowledgements

For my wife, who read and read and re-read until her eyes went blurry.

And for the Originators, wherever or whenever they may be.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The following tale is famous among jadebloods. Many derivatives of it exist, several of which are cited in the appendix of this book. An illuminated manuscript of the fable was donated by the Sanctum of the Sylph and is currently housed at Mothermount University’s Center for Wigglerology.

 

     In the beginning, when the world was new, only the Originators walked the Earth. The globe had been covered in dark, frothing water that held fearsome monsters and terrible beasts, and naught but a shadow of civilization remained until They breathed life into its sails. 

     To the Witch was assigned the Stars, Sun, and Moons, and as a windchime hangs from the branches, she placed the Earth into the sky to turn upon its axis. To the Maid was assigned the Land, for she possessed the touch of Life, and allowed the seas to cede to the mountains and the forests. And to the Knight was assigned the spinning of the Clock, that Time might turn its mighty gears and yield to the resurrection of the old Earth. The Originators looked upon their labors and saw that the world was good, that it was bountiful with lush trees and snow-capped peaks, and that animals ran freely over the land. And yet the Originators were alone.

     The Sylph looked upon the sorry state of her people and was saddened. A bare skeleton of her race remained, impotent and doomed to waste away. They had been worn to the nub with war and carnage, and without a miracle, they would dwindle to nothing at all.

     And so the Sylph resolved to bring her Mother back to life.

 

     On the first morning, Sylph and Witch conspired to rearrange the stars. This way, the Sylph could reach up and scrape a scrap of the Frog’s starry skin – for the maidens of Space were well-versed in the life-giving grace of the Ancestral Amphibian. Lending her the power of the Green Sun, both Witch and Sylph plucked the stars from the heavens and placed them into the form of a grand, spiraling staircase. In honor of her Space-Sister, the Witch named the new constellation “The Sylph’s Stairwell.”

     Up, up, up through the constellations, she climbed to the edge of the Universe and collected the iridescent nebulae that sparkled in the Frog’s great webbed toes. Then she returned to Earth with the cosmic water sloshing in her basket, and sought a dark and cool place for her Mother to roost.

     In the darkest pit of a deep, wet cavern, the Sylph poured her galactic elixir until it filled every fissure of the rock. Taking a slender sewing needle, the Sylph pricked her finger and allowed a stream of jade blood to drip into the Frog’s starry essence. The Frog, our All-Mother, absorbed the Sylph’s holy droplets, and down in the pit there was a great rumbling as a surge of Life was erupting. What arose from the birthing trench was the Earth’s first Mother Grub, her wings fluttering with the dust of a hundred solar systems. 

     With one mighty motion, the Grub drank up the sparkling soup from which she had been born. She gazed up at her Mother-Daughter, watching in awe from the precipice.

- Sylph of Space, little one, how lovely it is to see your face again, said the Grub.

- Do you remember me? asked the Sylph. Could it possibly be?

- Why of course I remember you, treasured one, I have seen you through all the pages of your life. I nurtured you in the warmth of my thorax, I spun you up in silken thread, you cared for me in my ailing sweeps, and across the vast expanse of Space you carried the pearl of my life close to your heart. 

     Love washed over the Sylph like honey, and in the joy of reunion she began to weep. The Grub wrapped her in her dusted wings, and the two glowed in unison as twin stars in the dark night.

     Now the Four Spheres of the earth had come down into the darkness, and in the Grub’s dim glow they bowed their heads in reverence. From the tallest Pawn down to the smallest of Salamanders, there was now a great crowd of folk gathered to admire her in her newborn glory. In a grand arc, the Sylph swept her arm ‘cross the cavern, gesturing to the deferential throngs of admirers.

- Mother, said the Sylph, behold, the many wards I have collected for you. In my absence will they care for you, they shall wash your carapace in salty brine, they will scrub your horns and bring you food, they will clean your birthing trench and deliver to you a great rainbow of slurry. I will see to it that they treat you well, that they tend to you winter through spring.

But the Grub fluttered her wings in a flurry of discontented dust. This will simply not do, my love, crawed the Grub, for centuries have my kind been aided by the Jadebloods, and now my final daughter seeks to abandon me!

The Sylph was injured by her Mother’s accusation. Never, never! Never would I desert you! 

-  Yet you tell me in my dawning moments that you wish to abdicate your duties, scorned the Grub. I will tell you this once, my dear, and once alone – I will never lay another wiggler without my attendants of jade!

     With that, the Grub gave a great harrumph and settled into her nest of silken threads, and the Sylph was left to weep. Her tears were bitter and hot, not because she dreaded the responsibility of caring for her beloved, long-awaited Grub, but because she feared the remaining Originators would leave her behind in Time. She would be all alone in a foreign century, and without a cloister of jades to assist her, she would surely go mad with loneliness.

     The sound of her dripping teardrops echoed high into the dark, dark cavern. After a while, the gentle drip-dripping melody summoned two heroes to her side. It was the Seer, her Matesprit, and the Witch, her Space-Sister.

- We expected to find you in high spirits, said the Seer, but here you are in utter anguish. What could be the matter, my love?

- It’s the Grub, sobbed the Sylph, she will accept no wards but those of my hue. And the jades born from the slime are still so young, it will be sweeps upon sweeps before I am able to leave her side.

- Was this not the destiny you wished for? questioned the confused Witch. The Grub is your Mother, the two of you share a precious bond. Should you not feel glad?
- It’s true that I love her most dearly, the Sylph replied, but I know well enough that our party has eyes set upon another time. You will all settle in the future without me, and you will forget about me altogether.

     The Seer was unsettled by her matesprit’s despair. She clasped the Sylph’s hands tightly in her own and kissed her cheeks, where streaks of tears were beginning to dry.

- You know I would never leave you behind, said the Seer, and I will hear no more nonsense of abandoning you. Surely there’s something that will sway the Grub from her stubbornness. 

     The Seer looked upon the Witch, and in her vast knowledge of the Unknown could see the waves of fortune that rippled from her skin.

- You, pointed the Seer, you are unique among us. You alone share the Sylph’s spiral of Space, you alone may be ranked among those of Jade. Your words will, Light shine upon you, lend credence to the Sylph. The Grub may be persuaded.

- What am I to do, then? the Witch asked. It had been a long time since the Witch had done anything heroic at all – freshly emerged from her Long Solitude, the Witch had not tasted of adventure for over a sweep. 

- That, I leave up to you, shrugged the Seer.

     The Witch, as all Witches are, was very cunning. She had tricked many a monster, foiled many a demon, and she knew that it was exceedingly difficult to grapple with beasts. Sometimes they needed not to be persuaded, but to be fooled. So the Witch plotted a way to trick the Grub into releasing the Sylph of her duties, and allowing the Four Spheres to take up her care.

 

     The following day, the Witch gathered a throng of Carapacians and led them down to the Grub’s birthing trench. By this time, she had grown bloated with the starry, celestial soup she consumed upon her first breaths. Nested in her den of silk and rock, the Grub looked up sluggishly at the Witch above.

- Mother Grub, I have brought you your attendants. They will care for you from now on, said the Witch.

- So my child has passed on her duty to another, scoffed the Grub, too afraid to face me herself. I will tell her what I told you, Witch – I will take no cloister that is not jade.

- But they are jade, said the Witch.

- No, they are not.

- Yes, you will find that they are.

- They are not.

- Yes, they are.

     The Grub insisted that the Witch prove her ridiculous statement. The Witch nodded, and beckoned a little Dersite maiden to come forward. She was a girl of the Yellow Yard, well acquainted with the sly Witch, and knew well what tricks she had up her sleeve.

- This is no jadeblood, scoffed the Grub.

- On the contrary, she is very much a jade. She is as much a jade as I am a Jade, the Witch replied with a smile. Here, she will show you.

     The Dersite girl lifted her hand, and the Grub was surprised to watch her slice across her palm with a dull blade. But what came out was not crimson at all, but a dark and verdant green. It dripped down into the birthing trench, where the Grub sniffed it for herself. Yes, this blood was as brilliantly jade as any jewel.

- Impossible! cried the Grub, How could this be?

     Throughout the previous night, the Witch had sat with her books piled high ‘round her. She studied oxygen and hemoglobin, heme and macrophages, and after a time she came across a clever trick that would fool the newborn Grub. The Witch had discovered a curious thing called biliverdin , a pigment that could render an animal’s blood a vivid green. She studied the delicate shape of its molecules until she had it memorized, and until the sun rose she practiced the new trick she had come up with. When the Carapacian’s blood met the air, the Witch would siphon the molecules from the air and arrange them into the emerald pigment. With a snap of her fingers, the Dersite’s blood would be red no longer, nor would it cause her any harm. 

- It’s exactly what it looks like, said the Witch, this girl is a jadeblood, as are they all.

- This is witchery, the Grub cried, who ever saw a jadeblood without any horns?

- We were born of the ectoslime, the Dersite lied, and our horns have not yet sprouted. Though we were not born of a Grub, please allow us to look after you until your youngest wigglers are old enough to take up your care.

     The Grub mulled over this for quite some time, and took a moment to taste the swirls of green blood that were drifting across the milky surface of her trench. She licked her fangs, then finally nodded. The Witch’s heart leapt – was her trick clever enough to fool her?

- Very well, Witch, ceded the Grub, you would not lead me astray. My Sylph is a Space-child herself, and you are cut from the same cloth. I will take you at your word. But answer me this one question, Witch.

- What is it?

- Why is my Sylph so determined to abandon me? Why am I to be passed on to others like so much rubbish?

- Oh, that simply isn’t true, Mother.

     Those in the caverns turned to see the source of the new voice. The Sylph had emerged from the dim tunnel, her glowing hands folded before her. She climbed down into the birthing trench, wading in the remnants of blood and stars. 

- You are more precious to me than you can ever know, the Sylph said. I have waited and waited for you for what felt like a lifetime, and in my darkest moments I thought we would never meet at all. That I can stand here with you now is the greatest of blessings.

- Then why do you rush to absolve yourself of your duties? Am I a burden to you?

- No, Mother, never. It just isn’t my turn to be a hero anymore. 

     The Sylph held the Grub’s face in her arms, pressing her cheek against her sparkling, dusty skin. And in return, the Grub gave a contented clicking as she nuzzled her only jadeblood.

- You never wanted to be an average girl, did you? sighed the Grub. Very well. If this is the cloister you have selected for me, you may live the life you choose. I will be here whenever you choose to return to me.

     The Mother Grub’s glitter clung to her skin and her clothing, and when she pulled away from their embrace she was shining all over. The two of them twinkled together down in the pit, and when the Witch and her Carapacians looked down over the ledge, it was as though they were gazing upon two brilliant pearls beneath ocean waves.

 

     And so it was that the Sylph was able to leave her Mother in the care of the Four Spheres. Of course, no lie ever lasts forever, and it came to be that the Grub discovered the true nature of her cloister. However, the Carapacians had become as dear to her as her hundreds of wigglers, and she was not angry to find that their blood was crimson – in fact, she was only bemused. They had studied hard to properly provide for her, and their dedication was admirable, not detestable. Her Sylph had hoodwinked her, and the cleverness of Witch made her feel proud. 

     If her new offspring were the descendants of these heroes, the Grub thought, then surely the future was in very good hands. So Sylph and Grub were both satisfied with their lots, and all was well between them. 

 

 

 

     The end.

Chapter Text

     Time travel is really an acquired taste if you are not a Strider.

 

      “All right everybody settle the fuck down, I can’t focus when y’all keep squirrelin’ about,” complains Dave Strider. Expectations of him are high as his party prepares to jump forward several centuries. So, he has resorted to melodrama.     
      “Is the hand-holding necessary?” asks Dirk Strider. He is squished between Jane Crocker and John Egbert, and because he is self-conscious about his sweaty palms he has resorted to being obtuse.
      “Yes, the hand-holding is necessary, have some fuckin’ respect dude. All I ask for is one concession after years of neglectin’ time travel like the box of crackers in the back of the pantry that’s too far to reach so you just sort of let it sit there and by the time you remember it’s there it’s–”
      “Time travel is not very hard at all,” purrs Davepeta, who is quite content to hold both Jade Harley’s and Calliope’s hands, swinging their arms as they do so. “You are just being yifficult!”
      Dave scoffs, then scoffs again, his eyebrows knitted together into one dark tangle. “Oh I’m sorry cat me–”
      “I’m not you–”
      “Didn’t know this was the goddamn time travel Olympics, didn’t know this was a fuckin’ competition–”
      “It is not a compurrtetion Davey, I am here to pick up your slack after all, but I would most certainly win!”
      “You would not , you don’t even–”   
      “I would so! I am just so much better at it in efurry way!”
      “You–”
      “Are we heading out soon, or should I put the kettle on the burner?” Rose Lalonde asks.

     Traveling with a large group can be very stressful for everyone involved. You probably already know this if you have ever gone on an overnight school trip, or attended an anime convention. These children are finding this out now for the first time, and no one is coping very well except for Mr. Crocker. He has lived through sales training and phony team-building conferences and, most recently, a long stint in a cushy Dersite holding cell, so being the odd one out in a band of kids, aliens, and ghosts is the least of his troubles. He is quite content to stand and peacefully hold the hands of his two geriatric ghost-daughters until the Striders are finished bickering.

     Outside the ring of sweaty adolescent hand-holders is one troll who has neglected to participate. Terezi Pyrope stands aloofly, sipping a juice box and hoping no one will pay any mind to her, or try to convince her to come along. It is very annoying when your friends try to wheedle you into doing something in which you have zero interest, especially if the alternative is searching the debris of a collapsed dimension for your moirail. But Terezi Pyrope rarely gets what she wants. As Dave Strider continues to fall prey to Davepeta’s cheeky heckling, Karkat Vantas pays a bit of mind to her.

     “Are you absolutely dead-set on ditching us?” he asks. “Remember how well that worked out for Aradia and Sollux? Oh, right, you probably forgot they existed because they never fucking came back from the asscrack of paradox space!”

     Terezi takes a moment to appreciate that Karkat is just as loudmouthed when his dialogue is not being typed in all capitals.

     “Sollux has never been a team player, Karkat. You know that! And there is simply no way Mr. Eyepatches could trip his way into danger with Lady Death looking over him.”
     “You can’t possibly know that!”
      “No, but you also allowed Tavros to drift off into the woods without an argument!”
      “Uh, duh, because he’s Tavros?”
      “Well, Tavros can do whatever he wants, it’s his life! And the same applies for me.”
      “Do you really believe she might be out there?” Kanaya asks. Rose does not say anything when Ms. Maryam squeezes her hand much too hard.
      “There is only one way to find out.”
      “Wow, what a flippant fucking answer totally befitting of the situation’s gravity! Sure, why not throw yourself headfirst into the yawning void of nothingness looking for a single lost soul? My calendar’s clear! I don’t have anything else to do! It’s not like there’s a whole fucking planet to explore that took one and a half mind-flaying sweeps to reach!”
      “Karkat, please. Don’t be a bitch,” Terezi snips.
      “I am honestly beginning to think that you really don’t understand what you’re getting yourself into,” Karkat blusters, “even if there’s a fraction of a fraction of a fucking probability Vriska is out there, how in the hell are you going to bring her back?”
      Terezi shrugs. “Stranger things have happened, Karkat. Even if we miss you by a century or two, we’ll find a way to track you down. Not that we’ll need to!” She finishes her juice box and crushes it in her fist. “The two of us have always had… all the luck!”

     Karkat sucks in a big inhale to fuel the next volume of his barrage, but Jade Harley interrupts him. She has heard many people try many manners in which to sway Terezi over the past few days, and she is quite tired of it. Jade is the Uber driver, and these kids are the annoying friends who won’t let their friend leave the party and get in the goddamn car already. She clears her throat.

      “Karkat, let her go already! She’s made her decision,” she snaps.
      “Oh, I’m sorry Jade, am I inconveniencing you?”
      “Kinda!” replies Jade. “We have somewhere to be–”
      “Somewhen,” interjects Davepeta,
      “–and you are holding us all up! Terezi, are you ready to go?”
      “If you’d please, Miss Witch!”

     Jade Harley trains the Green Sun on Terezi Pyrope. The same Sun that’s slowly trickling out of her dominion, and will, eventually, leave her altogether. It flickers under her skin in pulses of sour apple green, and Jade trains her thoughts on the white vacuum circling down the Green Sun’s drain. Before she disappears in a flash of lightning and chartreuse, Terezi gives a little salute with two fingers. Her sharp teeth broaden in a characteristically devilish grin, and then she’s gone.

     “Wow!” Davepeta crows, “that was purrmatic! Anyways, who’s ready to time travel?”     
     “Hey! We agreed I’m callin’ the shots here! You’re the backup!” Dave replies, indignant.
      “Jesus, this again,” sighs John.

     Then there is nothing left to do but skip ahead to a new millennium. One where the world will be different, and not so many faces will recognize our heroic cast. Dave and his ameowgamalated counterpart scratch the record of the time flow, and in moments they are rushing through the in-between that exists between nanoseconds. To Roxy Lalonde, it feels like that point in the late afternoon when your body is trying to rest but your mind is spinning in circles. To Rose Lalonde, it feels like the moment your stomach drops when an elevator begins to descend. To Dad Crocker, it feels like the slow stop-and-start of bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic. And to John Egbert, unstuck from canon, it feels like nothing at all.

     The year isn’t 2941 anymore. It’s… oh, let’s see….

 

 

     The year 3350 is a year of transition.

     Everywhere you look there is a humming bot zipping through the underbrush, or trailing across the sky in a stream-driven hum-thrum beeline to some very important job. There are carpenter bots cutting and burnishing wood, bots slathering layers of cement between riverstones, bots cutting glass and bots digging trenches. Here and there, people in aprons intermittently check their work against the original blueprints. 

     As two Knights and a Sylph walk down the thoroughfare of a valley borough, a bronzeblood has a masonry bot cracked open upon his lap. A Dersite nods and rubs their chin as he points out some misfiring circuit that’s causing the bot to spit hot cement at its fellow droids.

     “They’ve put the grist to good use,” Kanaya Maryam notes approvingly. 

     Our party of teenaged gods have sling-shot themselves three hundred-something years into the future, and Earth is still in the midst of slow but steady growing pains. Before they took flight from the thirtieth century, some basic legislative groundwork was laid out. Terms discussed, lines drawn, Wikipedia articles misremembered. Terezi Pyrope jumps upon the table when voices grow too loud. 

     A vast amount of grist was released when Skaia cracked open and the Ultimate Reward was unleashed, but it wouldn’t last forever. Its use was to be prioritized, and in the end it was decided that the loot would be spent first and foremost on the hum-clicking chit-chattering nail-hammering hole-digging bots that now fill the air with their whirring. Centuries later, and the people of Earth C are still expanding outwards. Into the unknown, with their industrious androids in tow.

      “I quite like this settlement. It’s very quaint,” Kanaya continues. She points to the marbled stained glass that crowns the top of a sandstone tower. “The attention to detail is impressive. You would hardly know one of these machines was capable of taking so much care.”     
      “They look Alternian,” Karkat Vantas grumbles in response. It’s a disgruntled, apathetic observation that he declines to follow up on.
      “Naturally. It’s the only prototype these people had to go off of.”
      “Let’s get this lil touristy hot-trot out of the way,” Dave Strider remarks in a way that could easily be interpreted as either being oblivious to his boyfriend’s discomfort or an attempt to change the subject. “I wanna catch up with the Mayor and see what kinda sick governance he’s been up to. You know how my boy likes to go to bed early.”

     There’s just so much to look at. A shopkeep props open his front door to allow the wafting smell of sweet bread to escape. A young troll, their torso still pockmarked with wiggling-legs that haven’t shed yet, chases a dog with a blonde human girl. A Prospitian stops to chat with a rustblood, whose grackle lusus is perched on her shoulder. So many noises and sights and smells fighting each other for attention, and our heroes don’t know what to focus on.

      “There!” Kanaya points suddenly to a low building with a thatched roof. The sign outside – and the two Carapacians stumbling out of the doorway – identify it as a pub. “There, I’ve decided our next stop. Let’s go in.”     
     Karkat scrunches up his nose. “Why?”
      “I’ve never been to a communal sustenance establishment before. Actually, a communal anything.”
      The corner of Dave’s mouth twitches. “You aren’t missin’ anything. First you got your wait time, right? You gotta sit in a little bullshit clown car lobby til the waitress sentences you to a table next to a soccer party with a crying baby in a highchair throwing pieces of pepperoni at you–”
      “Oh, my god, please shut the fuck up–” Karkat tries to interrupt. 
      Dave steamrolls over his objections. “And the mom’s not gonna say anything ‘cause she’s flaggin’ down her waiter for another glass of wine, so you’re pickin’ meat outta your hair and eatin’ it ‘cause you’ve already been waitin’ to eat for thirty minutes so you might as well take what you can get–”
      “Dave!” Kanaya shouts. “Please, shut the fuck up. We are going in. Or I am going in alone, and the two of you can shuffle about accomplishing nothing until the sun goes down. The decision is yours.”
      “Why this place?” asks Dave.
      “I already asked her that, numbskull.”
      “The reason is not complicated. We are here to investigate the current state of our society and judge whether it is an optimal era in which to settle down.”
      “Man, don’t say ‘settle down,’ such a bummer,” Dave says. He’s fatigued with the dreary dreadful dullness that came with the territory of living on a meteor for three years. The idea of starting all over again to remain in one spot for his foreseeable lifetime is as frightening as it is alluring.
      “Whether you find it a ‘bummer’ or not, Dave, we need to learn about these people. Three hundred years have gone by, and we are not versed in their culture, their language, their customs, or anything else for that matter. A drinking establishment is the best way to discern these things in one fell swoop.”
      “How do you figure?” Karkat asks, his arms folded.
     Kanaya laces her fingers together. “People are more likely to divulge information to you when they are in an inebriated condition. Sometimes to an overbearing extent.”

     The movement inside the pub is masked by stained glass, panels of dark red that make the shadows within look warped and muted. Something inside gets knocked over, and cheers erupt. A man in a stained apron comes out of the alley-side door to dump refuse bags into a trash chute, sighing as he does so. He pauses to wipe the sweat from his face, shakes his head, then returns to the din inside.

     “I don’t know about this,” Karkat mumbles.     
     “You don’t have anything to worry about,” Kanaya reassures him, “making a few new friends never hurt anyone.”
     “Actually, in our case it hurt a lot of people in many grievous, life-altering ways.”
     “C’mon dude, we don’t even gotta drink anything. We’ll just go in and hang out a bit, chat some people up, watch The Big Sport Game on the TV, and then we’ll go visit the Mayor, ‘kay?”

     Karkat bites his lower lip in consideration, which is not very obvious considering the severity of his overbite. His boyfriend thumps an encouraging hand on his back, and Kanaya offers him a smile that’s about as placating as the tight-mouthed grin of a nun. 

     The truth is that a little peer pressure is not enough to dissuade Karkat Vantas from a lifetime of being deathly terrified of groups of people, where drones fly overhead and the warmth of his blood color is so, so obvious. For the span of his life, it has been very easy to hide away and become small – that’s how you survive the empire, that’s how you survive the murderous rampages of a wizard and a juggalo. If a tree falls in the middle of the forest and no one is around to see its blood color, does it still get culled?

     “No harm will come of it,” Kanaya presses. “You have my word.”

     Karkat concedes that it would be hard for anyone to mess with him while a six-foot-something rainbow drinker looms behind him. So he nods, and Dave pumps his fist.

 

     The inside of the pub smells like smoke and roasting meat. Women raise their steins and howl with laughter. A troll raises a leg of lamb to his mouth and eats half of it in a single bite. At the bar, the Prospitian bartender leans over the counter to take the order of a little blue iguana, who is pointing at a picture of what it wants on the menu. The light that comes in from the stained glass windows is vermilion and emerald, swathing the dark space in warbling colors. There is no TV playing the Big Sport Game. Birdcages hang from the rafters, though, and a bar patron is busy feeding one of them fries from their plate.

     “How many of these guys do you think are slime babies?” Dave asks aloud.     
     “Of the trolls?” Kanaya takes a cursory look about the crowd. “Half of them, if I had to guess.” She fiddles with the bag slung across her chest. “We’ve been absent about three hundred years, give or take. Which means the Grub took on her full brooding capacity, oh, two hundred years ago?”
      “Time flies,” Dave wryly notes.
      “That it does. I’m going to head to the bar and look at what they have,” Kanaya says. “Why don’t you two find somewhere to sit and try to make friends?”
      Karkat bristles. He was expecting the Sylph to have his back, not ditch him in a pit of perfect strangers. “ W –”
      “Wait, you’re not gonna hog all the money Roxy got us, are you?” Dave complains.
      “Oh, here. If you must.” 

     Kanaya presents a glittery drawstring bag full of bronze coins. With her shining fingernails, she takes out some coins and places them unceremoniously in Dave Strider’s hand. Enough for drinks and a decent meal, at least. Ms. Maryam heads to the bar to fight for attention, and the Knights are left standing between the tables. Karkat takes the money from Dave’s palm and squints one eye shut, examining the designs upon the coins. They’re roughly hewn and dull. One side depicts the profile of a turtle. The other is stamped with the sigil of Light.

     A tentative form of currency has been established among the Four Spheres of Earth C, but it holds about as much weight as Monopoly money. The grist supply is still robust, and regional alchemiting stations provide generously for their jurisdictions. This is what the Rogue learned when she used her mad hacks on the system and forged false documentation for her social circle of undercover deities. A quick trip to the nearest courthouse hooked them up with access to their Civilian’s Stipend, enough to last several weeks in the average settlement. But the money they use here in the lakeshore borough of Thief’s Triangle seems to be nothing more than a placeholder. A hollow gesture preparing its people for the day when currency will actually be a necessity. Patrons throw it about without care. A waitress refuses payment when a twiggy oliveblood insists on handing her a bag of gold. It’s like they’re playing pretend, like they all know money doesn’t matter.

     “I know what this reminds me of,” Dave says suddenly. He shakes Karkat by the shoulder, and his boyfriend recoils from what he knows will be some dumb-of-ass, time-wasting tangent. “This is just like D&D!”     
     “D and what?”
     “Dungeons & Dragons dawg, come on, like, the game where you pretend to be a cleric elf or barbarian dragondick or whatever, and you go around talking to imaginary people and completing quests for babies until you have to like, fight a werewolf or something.”
     “Are you talking about FLARP?” Karkat asks.
     There’s a deep crease between Karkat’s furrowed eyebrows that Dave would very much like to stick a coin into to see if it sticks. “No dude, D&D doesn’t get you killed. It’s just a way for gay people to safely imagine living in medieval times at the small price of being forced to do basic math.”
     “So it’s FLARP.”
     “No.”
     “How is this in any way similar to our current situation?”
     “Dude. Karkat. Look around us.”

     Dave starts to swing his arm out in a grand gesture, but he forgets how cramped the quarters are. He nearly thwacks a burly Dersite woman in the stomach, and Karkat is immediately braced for the worst. She lets him off the hook with a snarl, though, and pushes him aside with one hand. Karkat is still bristling, but Mr. Strider is barely phased as he continues his – in fact – dumb-of-ass time-wasting tangent.

     “We got all the trappings of a classic D&D scene all around us. We got barmaids in corsets and aprons, we got pot bellied bearded adventurers drinkin’ out of wooden beer steins, we got animal companions perched in places what got no business havin’ animals.” He jerks his thumb to nearby table, where a lone troll is eating alongside a trilobite-looking lusus. “We got the fanciful Renaissance architecture complete with barrels of booze. And we even got a couple Knights here already!”     
     “Pipe down you fucking loudmouth, do you want everyone t–”
     “Crank it down a few notches and play in this space with me,” Dave says as he throws an arm around his boyfriend’s shoulders. Karkat hunches up like an armadillo retreating into its armor. “We got two Knights and a vampire in our party, we got some gold in our pockets–”
      “Bronze–”
      “We got some bronze in our pockets, alls we need is a quest.”
      “Uh, we already have a quest, how did your pan run out of bandwidth so quick?” Karkat snips. “Kanaya told us to do our fucking research and pal around with these, these–
      “Fellow adventurers, Karkat. They’re fellow adventurers.”
      “Fuck you.”
      “No time for that, man. Hey, no one said our quest can’t overlap with Maryam’s, ‘kay? Let’s roll for initiative and grind some XP.”
      “I’m not going to FLARP with you, Dave.”
      “I’m not – dude, throw me a bone here and participate, all right? We don’t know nothin’ about these people, and we can snap centuries ahead whenever the fuck we please. What I’m sayin’ is, pretty much nothin’s got any consequences right now. So just roll with it. Pick a character and roll the fuckin’ dice.”

     Karkat exhales very hard through his nostrils. He still thinks this is all asinine, but it’s hard to tell Strider to fuck off when he’s gazing at you with the same look a Golden Retriever gives you when it’s waiting for you to throw the ball. Dave is very lucky indeed that he’s sitting pretty in Karkat’s red quadrant, and making snow angels in all the other ones while he’s at it.

     Our Knight of Blood is about to acquiesce, but he’s interrupted by a crash and a bang at the other end of the pub. 

     A table has been overturned, and puddles of booze are spreading across the stone tiles. Those who were sitting at that table are now standing ‘round it with their arms raised, ready for a fight to break out. It looks like an argument got out of hand – two trolls are standing with their faces inches apart, puffed up and waiting for the other to back down. Everyone’s heads snap to watch the drama unfold.

     “Oh, fuck yeah, see? The quest came to us,” Dave whispers.

     Karkat swats him away and declines to respond. He doesn’t say so, but the scene in front of him sends a sharp chill down his spine. Mr. Vantas isn’t easily cowed by scenes of violence – no Alternian was – but this is different, because he had hoped things here would be different.

     The two trolls going neck-and-neck are not of the same blood caste at all. One is a rustblood, while the troll bearing down upon him is an indigoblood.

 

     “Just give ‘im the money, Oresha, don’t make a scene,” one of the onlookers growls to the rustblood.     
     “Stick a poker in it ‘fore I do it for you,” Oresha spits back. He doesn’t break eye contact with his opponent.
     “You’re makin’ a mistake, tryin’ to act all tough-ways,” says the indigoblood. A deep scar runs up from his bottom lip, and his voice sounds like he’s chewing marbles. “Why don’t you pay a listen to your buddy, huh? He’s lookin’ out for ya, ain’t he?”
     “I don’t owe you a half-cent Teryat, and you know it.” Oresha turns his head and spits on the floor, a dull pinkish splat on the tile. “Fight it from me if you’re looking to trade fists.”

     Well. Most people here don’t pay much mind to their money. But for these two, it’s not the coinage that matters so much as the fragile, symbolic pride hiding behind it. Whatever we’ve stumbled onto, it’s not a money dispute. It’s just a pissing contest.

     “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Karkat hiss-whispers. Hisspers.     
     “Why? This is a perfect opportunity to learn like, public etiquette standards for these people. We’re already learning the dialect! ‘Pay a listen…’ man what the fuck kind of phrasing is that?”
     “I don’t want to see how this turns out, Dave. Again: let’s get the hell out of here.”
     “If it gets ugly we can dip, you d–” Dave’s eyebrows raise, and Mr. Strider is finally aware of the waves of frantic discomfort coming off of Karkat like he’s the sole energy plant providing the village with distilled panic. “Whoa. You good?”
     “No, Dave, I am not good. I’m going to find Kan–”

     It’s the look on Oresha’s face that stops Karkat cold. It’s familiar, almost nostalgic. Not something he’s felt in a while, but hard to forget. The flint-sharp look of someone who has nothing left to do but to punch up. Or who desperately wants to, but knows that the simple act of defending your dignity means death. So it hardens over, stony as cooled lava, and comes to light as a stinging glint in your eye.

     Dave blinks. “Karkat?”     
     “–ay...a.”

     “No one’s taught you proper how it used to be run, huh? Well, maybe someone ought to chase you back to the swinefields with the rest of the maroons,” Teryat snarls.

     Oresha turns up his upper lip, then spits right in Teryat’s face.

     A hushed silence falls over the pub. A human waitress covers her face and turns away. Karkat wants to look away, too, but feels unable. Teryat slowly lifts his hand and wipes his cheek.

     “Your choice,” he says. “So be it. I’ll put the fear of the Four in you.”

     Oresha and Teryat start trading fists, and those around them fly out of the way. A bartender takes out a handheld phone-looking gizmo and begins to call for crisis interference. In moments, both trolls are splattered with each other’s blood. Teryat throws a punch, and Karkat notices for the first time that he’s wearing brass knuckles. What the fuck, is that allowed?

     “Karkat!” Dave shouts. “Hey, what gives? What are you doing?”

     Karkat is not sure what he’s doing, either. He’s just sort of… moving forward. 

     “Dave, what is Karkat doing?” Kanaya asks. She’s wormed her way through the crowd of people who are packing together now, unwilling to get blood sprayed on themselves but eager to watch the drama unfold nonetheless. She’s wringing her hands, looking a little ill.     
     “Don’t pin this on me, I don’t know either!” he replies, pantomiming wildly. “Dude, come back, you’re gonna get yourself killed!”

     Karkat probably hears his friends saying these things, but he doesn’t pay attention to them. The onlookers watch him approach the brawling trolls the way you might watch a video of a tiny, unassuming fish get eaten by a much bigger fish. They clamp their hands over their mouths and bite their tongues. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and sometimes it’s better to just let them do so. They won’t learn common sense otherwise.

     Teryat uppercuts Oresha hard, and the rustblood crashes back into the overturned table. Glass breaks underneath him when he lands. A collective groan escapes from the patrons. Teryat picks him up by the front of his shirt and winds back his arm to hit him again, but suddenly he feels a hand seize his sleeve. His grip on Oresha slackens, and the indigoblood turns to see a troll he’s never met before, two heads shorter than him, broad-shouldered, and of indeterminate hue.

     “Hey,” Karkat says, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”     
     Teryat’s lip is split, and it oozes blue when he snarls down at him. “And who might you be?”

     Karkat reaches up, yanks Teryat’s long ponytail forward, and headbutts him.

     Kanaya covers her mouth. Dave gasps, his mouth a perfect oval, and jumps to shake Kanaya by the shoulders. He’s utterly horrified, but he is also very, very much in love. What a far cry from the troll who was throttled in one-on-one combat by a little green man less than two weeks prior.

     Teryat is briefly dazed. He takes a half-step back, and his gang of silent ruffians seems surprised. They exchange looks, confused, as Teryat regains his footing. Karkat stands still with his eyebrows furrowed, glaring at him evenly. Teryat shakes his head – the motion sprays droplets of blue.

     “Nothing I’m hating more,” he grunts, “than a pipsqueak what’s not knowing where his business lies.”     
     “Whatever this is actually is my business, since you decided to drag us all into it,” Karkat snaps back. “What’s your problem with this guy? Why the fuck are you acting like this?”
      Teryat’s eyes dart toward Oresha. He laughs slowly, a deep sound that makes his broad shoulders rise and fall. “Ah, I’m seeing. You are a little maroon friend of his, am I correct? You want to be big and tough and defend him against the brutal blueblood, huh?” He thwacks Karkat between the eyes with his index finger.
      It stings very much, but Karkat doesn’t allow himself to flinch. “So that’s what this is, huh? Petty blood-bickering? How old are you, huh? You know, you wouldn’t last a fucking wipe on the old world. Thoughtless thugs like you would get crushed underfoot by a drone before you even managed to squelch your way from the birthing trench by the propulsion of your own excretions.”
     Teryat scowls. “You’ll be regretting that.”

     There is very little that Sylph and Knight can do for Karkat when the next few seconds unfold. Nothing that would do very much good, and nothing that wouldn’t immediately make their identities known. There’s no room for Dave’s timetables in this crowd, after all. So the two of them stand in abject horror when Teryat reaches forward to grab Karkat by the shoulder. Karkat bites down on his hand instead, drawing indigo blood, and Teryat cries out. He hits Karkat across the face and tosses him back in Oresha’s direction. The rustblood rolls out of the way to avoid the Knight falling on top of him. Before Teryat can move in to attack Karkat again, Oresha lunges between them and stops him short with the breadth of his palm.

     “Enough from you, you boorish beast,” Oresha says. “You don’t know when to quit.” 

     He turns to look at Karkat, his shoulders slumping. He’s not so much thankful to be defended as he’s concerned that Karkat bit off more than he can chew. Oresha extends a sympathetic hand, but the Knight turns from him. His hand is clamped to his face, and he looks only to the floor. He tries to bustle out of the ring with his tail between his legs, but Oresha stops him, too.

     “You’re all right, friend?” he asks.

     Karkat nods curtly and attempts once more to rejoin his party. Dave moves forward to collect him, and Oresha stops him again.

     “You’re certain? You’re looking battered at the backstays.”     
     “I cud say the thame for yoo,” Karkat mumbles through his fingers.

     There’s such a tenseness exuding from him that the energy in the room has waned. Even Teryat looks like the wind’s been sucked from his sails. Not remorseful, just perplexed.

     “What’s that?” asks Oresha.     
     “Oh jutht lent me go alwebby,” Karkat says with a dramatic eye roll. 

     A little human waitress with a pile of black hair atop her head comes bustling out of the kitchen. She has a wet rag in her hand, and a group of her coworkers linger behind her for emotional support. 

     “Sir! Sir, allow us to assist!” she yips. 

     She offers the rag to Karkat, who rudely refuses it. Oresha and Teryat both look affronted that they’ve not been offered the same courtesy.

     “Let them help you, friend, for their troubles,” Oresha insists.     
     “I thed I’m not– ” 

     The gap between his fingers loosens, and what drips from his hand and onto the floor is a splat of very, very bright red.

     Teryat stares. Oresha stares. The waitress stares, the onlookers stare, and Karkat stares, too. Even the birds in their overhead cages have the good sense to stop cooing.

     Oresha’s voice is hushed. “You….”
     Teryat’s mouth is hanging open. “You’re… you’re….”
     “I knew it!” cries the Prospitian barmaid. She slams a glass upon the table, cracking it between her porcelain joints. Then she points at Kanaya. “I remember you, from the caverns during the First Week! I knew it was you! The Sylph and her Knights! It’s him, in the flesh! The Knight of Blood!”

     The air is electric, and Karkat can feel his every hair standing on end. Before he can be surrounded by the skyward asses of adorers, Dave pushes his way out of the crowd and grabs a hold of his boyfriend. 

     “Nice seein’ y’all, great to catch up!” he says in his panicky sort of way. He takes the coins Kanaya gave them and shoves them unceremoniously into the waitress’ free hand. “Well we’ll be takin’ our leave now, thanks everyone, y’all have a nice day now!”         
     “Wait!” Oresha cries. He reaches forward, but he doesn’t touch Karkat. Like there’s a forcefield between them that didn’t exist until this very moment. “Wait! You… why’d you do it?”
     “Why’d I what? Put a pompous highblooded asshole in his place?”

     His voice is warbled from the injury to his nose, but the words still hit their target. Teryat looks cowed. Karkat hocks up the blood in the back of his throat and spits it onto the ground. People gasp and stare at it.

     “I guess I always wanted to. But I never got the chance.” Karkat wipes his mouth and looks at Teryat. “I don’t know what nonsense pseudo-hierarchy you’re trying to emulate, but it isn’t worth it. It just makes you look like a dumb asshole.”

     Teryat’s face burns blue as he looks at the patrons staring and snickering at him. His ears droop a little, and he shuts his mouth, too shamed to say anything. On the other side of the ring, Kanaya is beaming with the white-bright wattage of maternal pride.

     “We’re out of here. Dave?”
     “Way ahead of you man!” yaps Dave. “Bye, don’t follow us!”

     He seizes Knight and Sylph and barrels out of the pub before the people inside are aware they’re leaving. Behind them, they can hear the din of people shoving their way onto the street, shouting for their Originators to stay and chat a while, maybe sign an autograph or share a word of arcane wisdom, but the three of them don’t stop running until they hit the side roads, where the bots aren’t busy at work and the paths are still made of dirt and gravel.

     “Wh– where are we going?” Karkat pants as they run through the trees. Thief’s Triangle is distant now, the whirring of bots and the shouts of townspeople far behind them. 
     “I don’t know dude, just keep goin’!”
     “Seconded!” Kanaya shouts.

     

     With the rush of adrenaline that’s gone to their heads, none of them currently remember that Dave Strider is capable of time travel. And so they keep running into the wood, until they can reach the rest of their party and recount the adventure that they’ve just had. Where Jane can heal Karkat’s broken nose, and Jade can transplant their camp somewhere the local newspaper won’t be reporting the Knight of Blood’s dramatic reappearance. And if they are lucky, Roxy won’t be angry that she must delete their civilian documentation and set it up again in another distant era.

     Our two Knights don’t know it, but they have just spearheaded a very successful D&D campaign. With any luck, their character stats will improve the next time around.

Chapter Text

 

The following tale is based on the recollections of one of the trolls involved, who recounted the story to a biographer in his final years. An unabridged version of this tale may be found in his 3867 biography Bar Fights, Lusus Wrangling, and Other Fun Activities for Wigglers.

 

     On a fine summer day many moons ago, the two Knights were riding across the countryside with the Sylph in tow, scouting for adventure as Knights are often wont to do. It was early morning, and the two moons still glowed overhead in the pink sky. They had ridden for most of the night and into the morn, so when dawn began to break the trio was quite weary. 

     As their steeds cantered across a low bridge, the Originators found themselves on the other side of a shallow stream, where the birch trees thinned to reveal a settlement on the other side. They had arrived in the village of Thief’s Triangle, a lakeshore borough busy with the sounds and smells of masonry, stonework, baking, and pottery. Their stomachs growled, and the Knights decided that it was high time for the three Gods to restore their energy. They resolved to tie up their horses outside of a busy pub, where the scent of roasting pork billowed from the chimney in puffs of black smoke. Then they headed inside, their pockets fat with gold from their recent adventures across the wild land.

     When the two Knights walked in with their jadeblood companion, they were led to a table where the cool summer breeze wafted in from the windows. Their table was stacked high with bread and meat, and their goblets were filled with rich sweetsyrup and extract of buckroot. Bar patrons played cards and bet on fighting stag beetles, and for a while the party of Gods were in merry company. It was good that they had come here, where food was plentiful and water ran clear and bright. In the weeks before they had come here, they traveled the vast land where bots feared to tread. They had ridden across the Western Wastes, through snow-capped valleys and fetid swamps where no Sphere wished to settle. It was good to be once again join the society they had created, where they could enjoy the company of their descendants.

     But no merry time lasts forever, as every light must cast a shadow. It came to be that when their plates were clear and their goblets all but empty, there came a great raucousness from the other end of the pub. A flurry of fighting had broken out, and two trolls had arrested the bar with the ferocity of their brutal sparring. Knights and Sylph turned to see that two trolls of maroon and azure were exchanging vitriol with one another as they fought.

–  You have forgotten the old ways of our people, spat the azure, and that of your ranking. You have the nerve to face someone of the upper caste, and look upon me as your equal?

–  The old world is dead, and its customs along with it, retorted the maroon. If you wish to prove yourself superior, you will have to do so with fiercer fists than yours.

The azure laughed and struck the maroon hard, causing his vermilion blood to spray across the stone. So be it. I will teach you why they once called your ilk rustbloods.

     At this, the Knight of Blood was incensed. He had come from a vicious and brutish world, where the creeping shadow of death loomed ‘round every corner, where one survived only through savagery. It is hard to forget one’s home, no matter how cruel, and however bright the flame of nostalgia burned in our Alternian Originators, the Knight had lived his life with doom hovering over his head, as a child squashes a bug underfoot. 

     And so it was that when he heard the azure troll speak, the Knight was filled with fury. Was this not a new world, washed of the sins of those who had come before? Why had they settled this wild planet only to bring forth misery and hatred? He wished to know how the azure troll had come to view his fellows in such a horrible manner, but above all he wished to show him what it truly meant to live by the ways of Old Alternia.

     The Knight stood abruptly from the table, and his travelling partners were alarmed.

This matter does not concern us, pleaded the Sylph. We are not the rulers of these people, we cannot control and interfere with their dealings. Ever fearful for her dear friend’s safety, the Sylph wrung her hands in worry.

–  And will you try to stop me too, love?

The Knight of Time shook his head. Just as the azure has made his choice, you have made yours. I’ll say only this: if you involve yourself in this matter, you will get your ass thoroughly trounced.

     Despite the advice of the Sylph and his matesprit, the Knight’s anger was unwavering. Resolved to put a stop to this senseless bickering, he strode across the bar and planted himself between the brawling trolls.

     Just as a wildcat fails to notice the gnat as it sinks its claws into the stag, the trolls of azure and maroon paid no mind to the Knight. Unaware that they were in the presence of an Originator, they showed no signs of slowing. In mere moments, the Knight was stricken by the azure. Though he was surprised to find that he had missed his intended target, the azure was more annoyed than remorseful. His annoyance did not last for very long, however. For when he struck the Knight, a stream of blood began to pour from his nose, and from a long gash across his face where brass had met flesh. The Knight was bleeding the bright, telltale crimson of his forbidden caste.

     The azure fell to his knees in reverence. Those in the pub witnessing this affair did so as well, bowing their heads and averting their eyes in respectful deference. None had ever been in the presence of a God before – they knew not how to act, or what to say. Thus was the pub perfectly silent when the Knight of Blood stated his next words.

–  I have traveled across the very Void between Time and Space to be here, I have survived bloodshed and horrors beyond what you could possibly fathom just to stand here at this very moment. In this idyllic world you have carved out for yourselves, in this fledgling paradise you call a civilization, how is it that I have come to find the same pillars of hate seeding themselves among my own descendants?

The azure pressed his head upon the cold floor. Knight, I beseech you for your forgiveness. It was not in earnest, I meant not what I told him.

You preach the ways of the Old World, and you believe I will not know a lie when I hear it, sneered the Knight. Do you truly wish that you lived on Alternia? Do you want to know what it truly means to be part of the ancient hemospectrum?

     The Knight of Blood smeared his hand across his bloodied face. He clapped his hands together, and his palms were streaked with scarlet. Then he offered both hands to azure and maroon, who stared at him in confused awe.

–  Go on, then. If that’s what you want. Take my hand, and find out for yourself what it meant to be a highblood.

     Now the azure was quite shaken, and did not wish to find out what the Knight meant. Yet he was in the divine presence of one of the Firsts, and who was he to deny the Knight’s command? So he stood from the floor, trembling a bit, and tentatively reached for his hand. The maroon did the same, and when the two trolls shook hands with the Knight it was as though they no longer stood inside the pub.

     A great number of horrible and vivid images flooded their minds at once, channeled through the divine Blood of the Knight. With his power, he revealed to them visions of the distant past, from the earliest days of Alternia to the last moments, when trolls across the wide universe fell to the cosmic shrieking of the Deep One. Azure and Maroon witnessed cruelty beyond their wildest nightmares, powerless to stop the onslaught of awful imagery. 

     They saw lowbloods tormented in the night by the psychic chokehold of the subjugglators. They saw little wigglers splatted underfoot by drones within the first hours of their lives, ill and ailing infants split open and spilled, that even in their uselessness to the Empire they might be harvested otherwise – their skin to be paint pigment, their marrow to be medicine, their glands to be food dye. They saw great ships of fresh-faced trolls, barely matured, sent off to brutalize civilizations across the stars. They saw drones descend upon dissenters and defectives, seize them by the skulls and separate them from their spines. They saw purpleblood cathedrals with walls slathered in the greasepaint of the hemospectrum. They saw whole castes snuffed from the genetic pool, they saw saffronbloods bound to the cores of the starships, burdened to live forever as they powered the mechanisms of genocidal machines with their psychic curse. 

     It was as though they were really there, living every moment in perfect detail that neither would ever forget. Every drop of Blood shed on Alternian soil they were there to witness, they saw trolls gutted and flayed, maimed and decapitated and disemboweled, eyes and tongues removed for treason and betrayal and lechery. And atop the mountain of organs and bones, at the very pinnacle above all the sorrowful skulls, there sat the silhouette of a hateful queen, who had lived for a thousand, thousand years and had grown a thick skin of monstrous malintention. She dripped with the droplets of a billion trolls slain before their time, and as she cast her gaze upon them she merely smiled.

     The weight of her wickedness was heavy upon Azure and Maroon, who began to weep at the very sight of her. Those in the pub averted their eyes and whispered in fearful murmurs. What was it they had seen in the mirror of the Knight’s blood that caused them so much grief?

–  Enough, enough of these horrors! sobbed the Azure. I relent, just free me from these awful visions!

     The Knight of Blood sighed, wearied now with the memories of his long-gone world. He nodded, and let go of the two trolls’ hands. They collapsed at once in a heap of tears, utterly fatigued. 

My friend, forgive me, sobbed Azure to Maroon, if I had only known the atrocities our ancestors had survived, I would never have raised a hand to you.

     The maroonblood’s face was wet with tears. For not only had he seen what terrible things had been done to those of his hue, he had also seen what it was like to live life as a brutal highblood, to strike down those lower on the hemospectrum as if they were livestock. The two trolls had seen the past through the eyes of one another, and in turn they were united in Blood. Finally, they understood each other.

–  My brother, as we were born from the same slurry, our history is one in the same , said Maroon. Let there no longer be ill will between us, that we may stand beside each other as equals. For it is the Originators’ will that we look after one another.

     The Knight of Blood was contented with this conclusion. He washed his hands and his face until they were clean, and again shook the hands of the two trolls, who would no longer be opponents for the rest of their days.

 

     And so it was that peace settled upon Thief’s Triangle. Word spread of the Knight’s interference, how he had revealed the terrors of Old Alternia, and those who heard the tale resolved never to allow such frightful things to come to pass again. And in the lakeshore village that the Knights and Sylph had ridden through, a great festival was held in the years afterward. They dubbed it the Hemocarnival, where colorful tents and flowers and flags were strung about the town. All Four Spheres alike dressed in the many wonderful colors of the rainbow, and in the center of the town there was a boxing ring in which hopeful champions could pay homage to Azure and Maroon. They were thankful to the Knight for spreading his message of peace, and all was well in the village.

 

 

The end.

Chapter Text

     The year 3578 is a little more tame.

 

     There is a long stretch of farmland that runs between Bishopveil and Valleypass, where homes are few and far between. Every now and then there is a three-wheeled tractor that trundles through shafts of wheat, and you can see them exhaling vapor into the late morning air. 

     The golden sky is still crisp – the hazy colors of the two moons are beginning to give way to the day. On any other morning, the only people you would see are those riding rented bikes down the dirt paths, or the distant shape of a farmer on her way to feed the cattle. But today is not an average morning, because two Originators have appeared in town. They walk along the motorway with their busted bike groaning alongside them.

     “And another thing we should be askin’,” Dave continues, “is what the UBIs are like here.”
     “The ‘oobies?’” Rose asks. “Am I hearing you correctly?”
     “Hell yes, the UBIs.”
     “What are oobies?”
     “Universal Basic Income, god Rose try to keep up.”

     About twenty minutes into their ride, the back tire of their borrowed tandem bicycle popped and sent them careening into the mud. Flecks of flaky dirt still cling to their legs. Currently, the twins of Derse are discussing what they should do when they reach the nearest settlement for assistance.

     “Seeing as two hundred years have passed, I can’t imagine that their grist usage has slowed. It seems very likely that this era has more need of actual currency than the last time we visited.”
     “Do you think we’re gonna get our deposit back from the rental place ‘cause I was really jonesing for a sandwich at the Derspit bistro-place ‘cross the street.”
     “No, we won’t. Unlike you, I actually read the rental agreement.” Rose grunts and wiggles the bike handles when the front tire gets stuck in a puddle.
     “Fuck. Renting is a scam. Why aren’t there any bicyclist-renter rights laws yet, that should’ve been first on the fucking agenda.”
     “If you have such a strong opinion on how local government should be run, perhaps you should run for council.”
     “I don’t wanna run for council I just want a sandwich.”
     “We will get you a sandwich, Dave. But first we need to contact someone for a ride back.”

     Our heroes have decided to see what it would be like to live without the privileges of their godhood for a little while. They could feasibly get away with flying across the sky with their broken bike in tow, but why risk it? And Dave has had enough of time travel for this week, considering the absolute chore it is to coordinate with Cat Dave each time their party gathers together to skip forward. So here they are, schlepping along like a couple of normies.

     Up ahead, there is a painted sign tacked onto the wooden fence. Rose squints to read it.

     “‘Greater Valleypass Dragon Hatchery,’” she reads aloud. “A quarter-mile up ahead. We’ll pay them a visit, then.”
     “Is that your common sense speaking or Light powers.”
     “Who says it can’t be both?”

 

     In a short while they reach the driveway for the Hatchery, where the back-and-forth traffic of trucks has formed trenches in the gravel path. Rose and Dave keep close to the grass as they wheel the bike up the hill. Tall, lush apple trees provide shade along the way. Rose kicks a rotten apple up the hill, and it rolls lazily into the road.

     Neither twin has ever seen a dragon before. Lusii were left behind on this planet after it flooded – Jake English is intimately aware of this fact, having coexisted with them throughout his childhood. They cover the land even now, growing and evolving and spreading and – in some cases – breeding with the native species of Earth. The “lusus problem,” as Kanaya put it, was a difficult one to tackle. Should they continue to allow the wigglers of Earth C to be raised by wild animals, or introduce them to a family structure in which proper spoken communication is actually achievable? In the end, it ended up being a mix of both.

     Neither one says so out loud, but the Strilonde siblings are both privately imagining what a real, in-the-flesh dragon looks like. Rose Lalonde is picturing something like Smaug. Dave Strider is thinking more in the vein of Puff the Magic Dragon.

     Before they reach the crest of the hill, there is a great, rumbling echo that sends chills down their spines. The resounding bellow of some massive creature, the kind of sound effect you would only hear in a dinosaur movie. Dave stops in his tracks, and is surprised when Rose keeps walking without him.

     “I thought ‘hatchery’ implied that they were babies,” he says – trying and failing to mask his nervousness. “That’s what they had down in Florida, right? Gator hatcheries where you get to look at all the lil babies swimmin’ around in the pool?”
     “They probably are babies,” replies Rose without turning around, “just exceptionally robust ones.”
     “Oh man. I think your Seer powers need tuning. Really get in there with a can of aerosol or somethin’.”
     “Don’t you want to see a real life dragon?”

     Dave Strider bounces from one foot to the other, looking very torn. He would very much like to see a dragon, but his self-preservation skills are starting to kick in. He tries to reason with himself – You saw a flock of griffins last week and that was pretty dope, why don’t we pace out our introductions to fairy tale critters, they’ll still be here in a year or ten – but Rose is at the top of the hill now and threatens to leave him behind. So he groans a little and stomps his foot in a resigned sort of way. Then he jogs to keep up with her.

     At the top of the driveway, where morning sun glints over the apple trees and across the mountain peaks, Rose Lalonde expects to see something more fantastical. Dragon trainers taming wild beasts, bat-winged behemoths breathing fire and ash. A grand citadel to house them, sequestered from the prying eyes of the public. But it’s a little more pedestrian than that. The hatchery, at first glance, looks like a run-of-the-mill farm. There are barns with flaking paint, a little house where the owner must live. Farm equipment, shovels and rakes, a mottled horse roped to a fence that snorts and twitches its tail. Even the horse is underwhelmed, it would seem. Another echo of a reptilian roar reaches Rose’s ears, and the horse does nothing more than shake its head.

     “Well if this ain’t a whole lot of nothin’ dropped off on a pallet from Fuckall, Incorporated,” Dave says.

     Rose jumps a little to hear her brother right behind her. He has a penchant for sneaking up unannounced like that, and he always looks a little guilty when he does so.     

     “I think we’ve come across our first dragon.” She points to the barn. “The sounds are coming from inside.”
     “I thought our priority was gettin’ help outta here. Like, calling Ye Olde Uber or somethin’.”
     “It is. But I would like to see a dragon, first.”
     “Christ….”

     Rose props the tandem bike against the fence, and the tied-up horse gives them both a blank, disinterested look. Its ears swivel back and forth as if to say – great, now I gotta be responsible for this bicycle. The Strilonde twins make their way to the double doors, painted a faded white and unlocked. Rose is about to open them when a voice pipes up from behind.

     “Begging your pardon – are you the noon tour?”

     They turn to see a lanky human boy, whose mousy brown hair gets in his eyes even when he pushes it aside. He has a pronounced farmer’s tan and something in his mouth – he chews lazily as he waits for the siblings to answer.

     “Er–”
     “I… uh, she….”
     The boy scratches behind his ear and looks somewhere off to the side of the barn. “Borshi!” he shouts, “Visitors out barnside!” Then he places his hands in his pockets. “Owner’ll be out shorttime,” he says. “Make yourselves comfortable. I got a mare what’s need to lug some eggs for me.”
     “See?” Rose whispers after the boy leaves. “Painless. We’ll ask the owner to use their phone, someone will come fetch us, if it were any simpler there’d be arrows painted on the ground.”
     “And we’ll ask ‘em about the oobies?”
     “If time permits, yes, you may ask them about the oobies. I’m sure they’re perfectly pleasant.”

     A loud crunching of gravel and rocks comes from the other side of the barn. They see the shadow before they see the man – a looming silhouette that stretches into the grass. The troll who comes out to meet them is perhaps seven feet tall, broad-shouldered with a sharp jaw dotted with black stubble. His work uniform is drab and dirty, and despite the chilly weather he’s already shining with beads of sweat. The owner doesn’t wear a caste sign or any color to denote his hue, but the sclera of his eyes are bright teal.

     “Broke down on the motorway, did’ya?” he asks gruffly.
     “How–” Dave takes a moment to swallow the dry lump in his throat. “How could you tell?”
     Wordlessly, the owner points to the broken bike against the fence. “I’m Borshi. Boy you met is my apprentice. His name’s John.”
     “We know a John,” Dave yips.
     “Who doesn’t?” Borshi says, disaffected.

     Dave’s lips thin in a manner that would suggest he’s resolved to never speak for the rest of his life.

     “If it’s not too much trouble,” says Rose, “we’d like to use your phone. You see, our phones have no service out here, and one of our friends should be–”
     “Ain’t got a phone,” Borshi interrupts. “Not for a couple weeks. Powerline got fried by ravens. Flew into it ‘n got themselves tangled. Nasty business.”
     “That’s… too bad,” Rose replies.
     “Yup. Don’t need phones neitherways. We got the daily supply loads. Driver comes to and fro to pick up eggs, hatchlings, yearlings, sometimes to drop off rehab cases.”
     Rose perks up. “Have they paid a visit yet?”
     “Nope. You can hang ‘round till they get here. Use their mobile.” Borshi adjusts the strap on his coveralls. “Meantime, you can either sit ‘n pick your noses or take a look ‘round the hatchery.”
     Dave starts to grimace, but Rose’s face lights up. “We would love to assist you with any work you need done. It’s the least we can do for taking up your time. Isn’t that right, Dave?”
     “Eh… uh….”
     Borshi sniffs. “Could use a few hands. John can’t carry more’n an egg’s weight in grubmeal.” He jerks his head, signalling them to follow him inside the barn. “Got a couple hatchlings that need bedding changed. While John’s with the mare, you can make yourselves useful.”

     The smell of dirt and manure floods out from the doors and knocks the Derse siblings flat. Past the strong stench, Rose and Dave enter cautiously and look around. Sunlight filters in through slits in the roof, beams of light revealing dust and dirt circling about them. It reminds Dave of the inside of a horse arena, the kind they’d set up at a county fair with the bright lights and the obstacle courses. The walls are lined with stacks of hay, so much that you’d assume this is a place for housing cattle. But the creatures in here are anything but – one, two, three whole dragons are half-hiding inside their nests. Dappled sunlight and dim lighting camouflages them despite their bright, marble-white scales. One of them yawns, revealing a long, turquoise tongue and rows of sharp fangs.

     “We got nicknames to tell ‘em apart,” Borshi explains. He points to each one as he names them. “We got Ranger, Hannah, Turtle… eh, and the rehab case. Got ‘er last week from a sanctuary in Nyx’s Hollow. Toothrot, you know how it is.”

     They strain to see the unnamed fourth dragon. There it is – its tail twitching under a blanket of straw. On the other side of the barn, Ranger flaps his wings and roars a complaint when Hannah stretches her legs too far into his personal space.

     “Ranger’s a whiner,” he says.
     “Do any of them talk?” Dave blurts. Rose gives him a withering look.
     “Sure, but nothing I can understand. Nothing no one but a single soul could understand, one day down the line.”
     “You mean the troll they select as a ward?” Rose asks.
     Borshi nods.
     Dave looks between the two of them. “These guys are being raised to be lusii?”
     Rose’s look withers further. “I thought that was obvious.”
     “Not all of ‘em will raise wigglers,” the owner explains. “Rehab cases will be released to the wild, most times. Some will work as luggagebeasts – pulling carriages, aerial transport, that sort of wishwash.” 
     “But some of ‘em will be, like, troll parents?” Dave asks. “How do you tell what dragon does what?”
     “They ain’t dumb, boy,” Borshi says gruffly. “They got intelligent thought. They’ll let us know, in their own way. We help with the training, so’s they’re tame ‘fore they join society.”
     “What will happen if they choose to raise a troll?” Rose asks. It’s a genuine question – she knows a bit from Kanaya, but not the finer details.
     Borshi looks at her in a pitying way. He must think she’s slow, because he explains with simple, enunciated words. “A lusus that’s wanting a ward joins the cavern-queue. The Directory and the Department of Rearing handles the paperwork. Their chip is recoded, and they become joint-dependents.”
     “Ha, they sign paperwork,” Dave whispers. “Can you imagine one of these things signing on the line? ‘Uh, yes sir, pawprint here, here, and claw mark here.’”

     Throwing a bag of grubmeal over his shoulder, Borshi points to where the twins will be working.

     “My main three still need beddings changed. Don’t worry ‘bout the rehab case – she’s on the Somni-Aid to make her docile for teeth pullin’. John tends to ‘er more’n a baby. You can leave her alone.” He gestures to the straw against the wall. “That there’s fresh. Don’t use more’n two bundles for all three – they don’t need much. Some of’m will roost in a volcano if you let ‘em.”

     Both siblings are surprised that he assumes they’re ready to do farm labor unsupervised. Perhaps it’s Dave’s accent and Rose’s miasma of obstinacy that makes them appear as though they could wrestle a pig while churning butter with their feet. Rose doesn’t protest, however – alone time with a flesh-and-blood dragon is a dream come true. She doesn’t need this man breathing down her neck with minute criticisms. 

     “You can count on us,” she says, pressing her lips into a thin, confident smile.
     Borshi grunts. “Should hope so. Listen, I gotta chip some yearlings so’s they can be documented, else it’s a hefty fine from the LND.”
     “The what?” Dave asks.
     Borshi looks at him like he’s dumb. “Lusus Naturae Directory.”
     “Ah,” Dave says, “uh, I thought you said ICP.”
     He blinks. “You’ll hear the truck come up before you see it. If I’m not ‘roundparts, go out to meet ‘em. Driver’s a nice guy, name is Dave. He’ll let you phone your friend.”
     “My name’s Dave!”
     “So’s a thousand folks in Valleypass alone,” Borshi snorts in response. “John’ll be back shorttime. He’ll help you if you can’t handle it.”
     “We can handle it, sir,” Rose says. “Thank you for having us.”
     He grunts. “No skin off my pan. What’s your name, girl?”
     “Rose.”
     “Huh. Rose and Dave.” He looks between the two of them. “Fancy that. I’ll be parting ways now. Holler if you need anything – or the hatchlings will holler for you.”

     He carries the grubmeal out of the barn, leaving the two of them alone with several very dangerous fantasy creatures. They don’t look interested in doing anything more than washing their own scales and rolling in straw, though. Rose sighs, rolls up her sleeves, and heads to where the three dragons are roosting.

     “Wait, you don’t wanna check out Tiny Tim over there?”
     “Borshi specifically told us to leave her alone, Dave. Do you want us thrown out on our asses?”
     “I wanna at least have a lil fun with this seeing as you dragged me here kickin’ and screamin’.”
     “Is that how events transpired? My, I really do need to get all up in there with an aerosol can,” Rose shouts to him across the barn as she hefts a bale of hay over her head. “You can get yourself tossed if you must. I’m going to spend some quality time with some motherfucking dragons.”

     Rose sets aside a fresh stack and takes up the broad broom against the wall, which she uses to sweep the soiled bedding off into an empty corner of the barn. As a child she did not learn how to clean a house very well – just move the dust and grease around – and the dragons stare at her as if to judge her housekeeping skills. Turtle sniffs at her pant cuffs as she sweeps, his nostrils flaring. Rose stares at him out of the corner of her eye. He blinks up at her, then blinks his second set of lids as well. His eyes are a milky shade of periwinkle. Rose catches herself staring with her mouth open and breaks eye contact.

     Meanwhile, Dave has never taken well to following directions. He mosies over to the Unnamed Rehab Project with his hands in his pockets, approaching her the way you would sidle up to a stranger in order to ask to pet their dog. She’s a skeletal little thing, half-nestled in straw to make herself smaller. A pointed tail wags from under the hay, and feathery growths like ears twitch as she sighs. As Dave’s footfalls approach, she snuffles defiantly and turns her head to eye him. And at this moment, Dave is stricken by how different this hatchling looks from all the others. While her companions are a stark, eggshell white, this hatchling is covered in spots. A piebald sort of pattern, uneven smatterings of grey-blue speckled across her scales. 

     “Lookit this,” Dave calls over his shoulder, “Tiny Tim’s a dalmation.”
     “You had better hope Tim doesn’t snap your hand off for talking about her as if she can’t understand you.”
     “What’d Borshi say? They can only communicate with uh… like, the troll they pick as a ward?” Dave looks at the spotted hatchling. “Blink once if you can hear me.”
     The dragon’s feathery ears rise in curiosity, and after a moment she blinks at Dave.
     “Fluke. Okay, two out of three. Yawn if you can hear me.”
     The dragon snorts, then licks her teeth with a forked tongue.
     “All right yeah this guy can’t understand us. Come over here and look at ‘im. He’s pretty cool lookin’.”

     Rose is untying the bundle of hay, which is strung up tightly with thin rope. When she can’t get it to come apart, she takes the pocketknife from her sylladex and slits it neatly – but then the bale just falls apart on her. Rose curses as she brushes straw from her pants, and Hannah makes a gravelly vocalization like disdainful laughter.

     “Rose. Rose, look.”
     “Dammit, Dave, would you–” 

     She looks up to call him a rude name, but something happens when she looks at the hatchling. Dave calls it her “spidey sense,” which might’ve been more appropriate for Vriska, but for Rose, it's just the tickle in the back of her head called Light. Tiny Tim isn’t glowing, per se – there’s no highlighter-yellow exclamation point bidding you to click for a helpful hint – but the texture of the air around her is ever so slightly… different. Like the haze of heat that rises from faraway asphalt, a twitching mirage above desert sand. A hand on your shoulder and a nudge of encouragement. Follow the breadcrumbs.

     Light powers don’t mean much when you’re not trying to win SBURB. But Rose finds that the powers of a Seer breach the surface when they want to. Their hints are vague and lacking in urgency. Turn at this fork in the road, keep your eye on this person, don’t cross the road till the raven on the roof craws. Less of a godly power and more like superstition, but she follows its directions. And right now, Light is pointing her finger at the spotted hatchling.

     She straightens up. “What was wrong with her, he said? Tooth rot?”
     “Yeah, her breath reeks real bad. I guess that’s why she’s so skinny? Like it hurts to eat or somethin’.”
     “Sounds painful.” 

     Rose kicks the straw off her shoes and walks to Dave’s side. The hatchling is a beautiful thing. Her spots are marbled and blur at the edges. They change color as she shifts in the dim daylight of the barn, and Rose sees that they run down her spine and cluster around her hind legs. It’s as though a painter flicked their brush at her and freckled her with spots of watercolor. When she opens her mouth and yawns, Rose confirms for herself that the dragon’s breath is truly rotten.

     “I can’t help but wonder,” she murmurs, “if there’s another reason we came here.”
     “Uh, yes. It’s because we need a fuckin’ ride home or we’re gonna get stuck out here and become children of the corn.”
     “Don’t be a bitch, Dave. You know what I meant.”

     The dragon sniffs as Rose puts out a tentative hand, like trying to convince a street cat to let you pet it. Her nostrils flare, the little quills down her spine rising and falling as she investigates Rose’s scent. She decides she doesn’t care either way whether Rose invades her space or not, then rests her head on her paws. Rose pets her slowly and cautiously. It is one of the coolest motherfucking moments of her life, right under blowing up a Universe and making out with a vampire.

     Just then, the barn door slumps open. John is pushing it one-armed, his other hand tugging the mare by the rope ‘round her neck. It protests, making a horrible sort of bray that disturbs the dragons. They bare their teeth and flex their wings as John drags the horse inside. Its saddle is unloaded of whatever eggs John had to take away, but now she’s limping.

     “Borshi in here?” John squeaks.
     The twins shake their heads ‘no.’
     “Ah for the torture of it all, he went down to chip the yearlings didn’t he? Ah man, ah hell, for the love of Skaia, would you mind keeping an eye on Gisele here?”
     “What happened?” Dave asks over Gisele’s terrible whinnying. 
     “Long story. Uh, I’m of the thinking her ankle’s broke. Hard to tell. I’m a dragon boy, not a horse boy. Ah, I have to run and fetch Borshi. Keep an eye, yeah?”
     Dave looks at Rose. Rose looks at Dave. They both look at John, and then they nod.
     “Consider it done,” Rose says.
     “Thank the Four! It’s by the stroke of Light you came to us,” John cries. He clasps his hands together. “A million thanks to you, my friends. Watch the mare! I’ll return shorttime!” The farmhand dashes out, leaving the barn door open.

     And now the twins are left with four dragons and an injured horse, none of which belong to them, and none of which they know how to tend to. 

     “Is it my imagination, or is Gisele kinda just… free-bleeding on the floor.” Dave’s face is bunched into a grimace, and he clenches and unclenches his fists.
     “That would appear to be the case. Good thing Borshi charged us with changing the bedding, huh?”
     “Ha,” Dave fake-laughs. “Funny. Seriously. What are we supposed to do about… this.”

     He gestures to ‘this,’ which is a spastic horse falling over itself upon the floorboards, lashing its tail and snorting as it struggles to maintain dominion over gravity. 

     If you have never lived in Amish country or a city that is particularly enamored with horse derbies, it is very easy to underestimate the size of an equine in your mind. In your imagination a horse is pony-sized, a slight little thing that you know in theory must be very big and strong, but have no real-world basis for comparison. Such is the case for Rose Lalonde, whose only experience with a horse was the sleek and pixie-sized Maplehoof. Gisele in not Maplehoof. She is a writhing mess of muscles and bone, bucking her heavy hooves that sound as though they could punt you into next month. 

     She’s smelly, and big, and loud, and neither sibling wants to be the first to approach her. It’s a lucky thing that they don’t, too, because someone else has called first dibs. While most of the dragons are perturbed at best by Gisele’s fretful spasming, Tiny Tim has taken a shine to the prey animal bleeding its delicious blood everywhere. She stands and shakes off the hay, revealing the ribs poking through her thin skin. She extends her wings, gives a pitchy cry like a broken garbage disposal, then runs headlong at Gisele. What are Rose and Dave to do, just get in the way? Get mauled by a dragon, or else kicked in the head by a horse? Dave yanks Rose out of the way, and she pushes him to the floor on her way down. They land with a thud on the dusty barn floor, the spotted hatchling’s wings skimming just over their heads.

     “Oh, fuck!” Dave yelps. “She’s gonna kill that fuckin’ thing!”
     “Reach for the broom!” shouts Rose. “If we can distract her we can separate th–”

     Gisele brays and kicks at the hatchling, who reacts poorly. She snaps at the mare’s legs, and the horse responds by running sloppily out of the barn door. The hatchling follows suit, crawing with her eerie roar.

     “Well so much for keeping an eye on them.” Dave says. “We aren’t very good at following directions, are we.”
     “Not particularly, no.” Rose pulls her brother up and then dusts the dirt from her sweater. “So we should definitely be following them, I presume.”
     “Oh yeah definitely.”
     “Thought so.”

     The Twins Strilonde take off across the dewy grass. 

     The spotted hatchling has plenty of energy from soaking up the sun all morning. She bounds over the hills and through the trees in broad leaps, her tail arrow-straight, her wings folded neatly like those of a paper airplane. To Gisele’s credit, she’s doing an impressive job outrunning her. Maybe it’s that she keeps haphazardly running in a confused beeline, forcing Tiny Tim to readjust her course. Or maybe horses on Earth C are just a different ilk, like terraforming and crossbreeding and evolution to suit this continent has resulted in a beast of burden that doesn’t need to get shot behind the barn if it so much as steps on a rock incorrectly. That’s another thing they should ask Borshi, if they don’t get tossed out for gross incompetence.

     The mare stumbles further down the grove, where she slips on a cluster of half-rotten fallen apples and skids to a halt on her stomach. The cry she lets out sets Rose and Dave’s teeth on edge. Her hooves flail as she attempts to gain her footing, but her weak leg prevents her from doing so. In no time at all, the spotted hatchling catches up to her. Her wings extend as if to set a tablecloth – a great white shape against the dark trees. The kids are still running to catch up, too far behind to do any good. Panic sets in, and they prepare for the worst: the dragon is going to eat this fucking horse right in front of them.

     But then someone jumps out from the trees, fending off Tiny Tim at just the right moment. It’s Dave Strider, Caledfwlch held aloft.

     “Oh, what the fuck,” our original Dave pants.

     Dave crashes in and bops the hatchling with the broad side of the sword, taking care not to cut her. She caterwauls and shakes her head hard, looking like a dog shaking the water from its fur. He jumps over the still-struggling Gisele and lifts the sword above head when the hatchling stands up to shove him with her claws. Her paws grip the flat side of Caledfwlch, and now it’s a sort of mismatched game of sumo wrestling happening between them. The hatchling might be frail, but she’s still very, very big. She pushes hard against the sword, opening her mouth wide to snap at him. The time-traveling Dave winces when he smells the fetid odor of her toothrot.

     “This is supposed to be the part where you help me!” future Dave yells.
     “On it!” Rose calls. 

     With a sweeping motion she withdraws the Quills of Echidna from her strife specibus, two gnarled, alabaster things the length of her arms. Like casting a fishing line into a pond, she slings the Quills back and lashes two electrical bands of lightning at her. They crackle and hiss in the air, arcane magyyks giving off warm pulses of energy. Future Dave ducks and rolls before he can be squashed by the falling hatchling, whose limbs and wings are now tied up in cobalt strands of bright light. She squawks and chatters upon the ground, thrashing about to escape the Seer’s magic. No dice – she’s stuck. She and Gisele lie next to each other, each completely unconcerned with the other now.

     “‘Sup folks,” says the newly arrived Dave, brushing grass from his pants. “Sorry to drop in on ya like this.”
     “That’s exactly the kind of bullshit thing you’d say after using time travel for a situation that doesn’t warrant it!” Dave shouts.
     “Horseshit. It’s a horseshit thing to say.”
     Rose snorts. “Nice.”
     “Anyway, we got a time loop to close. See ya on the other side, dude.”
     “Yeah, yeah, I haven’t forgotten,” current Dave grumbles. “Thanks for takin’ one for the team, man.”
     “No prob.”

     Current Dave – soon to be Past Dave – takes out his Time Tables, his hands hovering over the discs. He nods to Rose and Past Dave – soon to be Current Dave – and disappears in a hazy fog of red. It’s his turn to wrestle a dragon now.

     “How do you propose we get her back to the barn?” Rose asks.
     “You’re the fortune teller,” Dave replies with a shrug. “Let’s just fly ‘em over. There’s enough trees to give us cover.”
     “The idea seems rash, but we may not have any other options.” Rose taps her lower lip, her mouth scrunched into a little circle. “If only we had Jade to teleport them back into the barn. John will be worried if he sees we’ve all vanished.”
     “What’s John got to do with it.”
     Rose frowns. “John the farmhand, not John our friend.”
     “Right. So many fucking Johns in this town.” Dave pushes his sunglasses further up his nose. “All right, well, I’ll fly the horse if you fly the dragon.”
     “So thoughtful of you, David, to delegate the aggressive, strung-out apex predator to me. You must really care about me.”
     “Yeah what can I say I’m really considerate like that.”

     They start to approach the pair of writhing animals, who are making no less sound now than before. It’s an awful cacophony of braying and growling and snapping and snorting. Rose is considering the logistics of using the Quills’ magyyk as a sort of purse handle when there comes a harsh cough behind them.

     “Got bored of cleaning the barn, did you?”

     The twins jump out of their skin, squealing in unison. When they turn, they see Borshi. He’s leaning on the back of a truck with a tarp cover, which evidently rolled up the hill without them noticing. It’s hard to hear the engine even now over the combined din of the mare and the dragon.

     “This, uh….” Dave says.
     “This isn’t….”
     “Uh… how much did you… see?” he asks.
     “Damned dragon ‘nappers!” Borshi yells. He starts at the twins at an alarming pace. They back away from him as he clenches his fists. “Thought we weeded out the rest of your kind. Wanted to pick on the smallest, huh?”
     “No, you’ve got it wrong!” Rose protests, “We–”
     “Thought ‘er scales would look good on a necklace, did you? Thought you’d prop her up before the firepit?”
     “No, we just–”
     “There’s a heavy price to pay for fooling like this, and you wiggler-tykes look hard pressed to last a sundown where they put life-thievers!” He seizes Dave by the wrist. “Both of you are coming with us, and don’t try to be causing trouble before they come to collect you!”
     “Wait!”

     Borshi turns to see the source of the squeaking voice. Rose and Dave turn, too, and see that John has emerged from behind a tree.

     “Don’t get too close, boy,” Borshi grunts. “These’re ‘nappers, armed and dangerous. Let the grown ups take care of ‘em.”
     “No, they’re not.” John stares at them with big, wide eyes. His fingers scratch the tree bark as he grips onto it. Slowly, he lifts a finger at points at the Strilondes. “Those are Originators.”

     Borshi looks to Dave, then to Rose, then to John, then to Dave and Rose again. 

     “What nonsense are you talking, boy?”
     “It was Gisele,” John says, his voice cracking. He pushes the mousy hair from his eyes. “She got her ankle twisted in a rabbithole after egg-lugging. I dropped her at the barn for them to watch her, but when I was crossing the farm I heard the rehab case break loose.”
     “It’s true,” Rose says. She swallows hard. “The hatchling was excited by the scent of the mare’s blood, I’m assuming. She chased Gisele out of the barn, and we ran after them.”
     “Well, she has been on a liquid diet since arrival,” Borshi considers. His grip on Dave’s arm slackens, but he doesn’t let go.
     “When I was running through the grove I saw ‘em running, the both of ‘em, but beside me in the trees I saw another one of him.” John points at Dave.
     “Nice one,” Rose tells Dave.
     “How was I supposed to know he was there?” protests Dave.
     “That there’s the Knight of Time,” John squeaks, “and the Seer with her magyyk Quills!” 

     John is trembling now, and Borshi looks at his apprentice with his mouth agape. He looks down at the twins before him and looks them both in the eye. They stare at him evenly, waiting for his reaction. Rose is nervous, but Dave is a little less so – this would not be the first time he has been discovered by a civilian.

     “You,” Borshi nods to Rose. “Let my hatchling go.”
     “Of course,” she murmurs apologetically. 

     Withdrawing the Quills once more, she unleashes the bright bands of blue keeping the spotted hatchling restrained. John rushes forward to calm her. For such a little guy, he doesn’t fear getting between her and the mare. Tiny Tim lets him hold her long face, and he cracks her mouth open to look inside. Whatever he sees confuses him, because he gets down in the grass and feels around with both hands.

     “What do you see?” Borshi calls.
     “It’s her toothrot,” he answers. Finally, he finds whatever he’s looking for. He holds it aloft – two big, shining teeth discolored with bacteria. They look black and purple. “The Knight’s knocked her teeth out!”
     Dave’s shoulders tense. “Uh, whoops. Sorry about that. I, er–”

     Suddenly, Borshi bursts into laughter. It sounds wrong coming from him, who has merely scowled and grumbled since they met him. He throws his head back and gives a bellowing laugh, patting Dave on the back so hard that he falls forward.

     “Nice work, Knight,” Borshi says, wiping a teal tear from the corner of his eye. “You may well be suited for hatchery work one day.”
     “Sounds a little high-stress for me,” Dave replies. He rubs his wrist where Borshi had latched onto him. “Just glad to help, I guess.”
     “And you, Seer. Gisele’s a good mare. My thanks for helping her from further harm.”
     “It’s my pleasure. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
     “Inconvenience! Bah, I’ll be hearing of no such noise. Dave!”
     “What?”
     “Not you, Knight!” Borshi laughs as he pats Dave hard on the back once more. He turns to call to the truck’s driver, who looks like he’s having trouble believing his eyes. He blinks hard when Borshi calls to him. “Dave, fetch our revered ones your mobile! They’ve been waiting ‘round long enough!”
     “Yes, at once!” Dave the Driver blusters.
     “Actually, now that we’ve been discovered, I think we should probably just head out the normal way,” Rose says with an apologetic smile. 
     “Yeah, no point keeping up the ruse now,” Dave sighs. “Sorry for leavin’ a busted bike on your fence, but hey, I’m sure you could sell it to a museum.”
     “You won’t stay?” Borshi asks, perplexed.
     “We really should be going. Again, we apologize for interfering. Your hatchery is lovely. I’m very glad we got the opportunity to see it.”
     “Yeah, it’s dope. Tell Tiny Tim I’m sorry I bashed ‘er teeth out. You know how it is sometimes.”
     “You– wait!”

     Down on the ground, John and Borshi shield their eyes from sunlight and watch Seer and Knight launch into the sky. They sail over the trees, until nothing can be seen but two specks in the haze of blue. The Greater Valleypass Dragon Hatchery is far behind them now, and those remaining have an interesting tale to tell.

     

     As soon as they’re over the grove, Dave and Rose land with a thud on the side of the motorway. Just as before, there’s no traffic out. Surrounded by grass and wheat on all sides, they’re alone once more. And somewhere, three mortals are losing their absolute shit over the divine interaction they’ve just had.

     “Do you think we can still get a sandwich at that place before they find out there’s Gods in town?”
     “You may have one sandwich, and then we are breaking the news of our colossal fuckup.”
     Dave pumps his fist. “Sick! You can have some too, if ya want.”
     “Your generosity amazes me every day.”

     The next village over is two miles away. If they keep their heads down, they can get Jade to teleport them back to safety. But by then, news will have broken across the countryside of the Gods’ descent onto the plane of the Four Spheres. We could wish them better luck next time, but there are plenty more tales to go. So we will rejoin them in a century or two, and allow the Derse siblings to enjoy a nice sandwich in the meantime.

Chapter Text

 

The following tale has been the subject of much historical debate between members of the Symposium and the Knight’s Templar. It relies on heavily contested facts from multiple versions of the story. See the appendix for additional notes.

 

     Many ages ago, it so happened that the countryside was visited by two Originators. Where farmland stretched across the horizon in swaths of green and gold, and the sky was a clear turquoise, untouched by the vapor trails of the zeppelins. Where the Four Spheres had settled sparsely and tended to quiet lives of humble, modest work. It was here that the Seer of Light and the Knight of Time came to undertake a special quest. For several sundowns had they ridden across the flatlands, hunting for the spot that the Seer had seen in her dreams. It was a task not meant for one God alone, and so the Seer bade her brother to ride alongside her as her assistant. 

     As they traveled, they turned down paths and crossed streams as the power of Light dictated her to do so. Now the Seer could sense with her Eye of Eyes that the end of their journey was upon them. She pointed in the direction of their destination, and the Knight rode up the hill into a dense, dark forest full of fruit-bearing trees and underbrush dotted with berries. 

     It was this forest that was revealed to the Seer in her divine trances, where the Deep Ones of the Ancient Black spoke to her in chilling whispers of the past and future. During this time she was privy to glimpses of All That Was and All That Is To Come, and with her Eye of Eyes she looked upon a little place where magnificent creatures lived. There, she might find the power to fuel her ancient Quills, whose magyyk had slowly waned upon their departure from the Medium. In the dark forest, she might find artifacts that would restore the Quills to their former power.

     As they rode up and up through the dim trees, Seer and Knight heard the roaring of many beasts in the wood. Here, the Gods of Derse dismounted and traveled the remainder of the route on foot. Above the treeline could they spot the flapping of many colossal wings, which cast black shadows across the forest floor. There was the squawking and chattering of reptilian beasts, and in the sky, they saw the smoke trails of fire breath. Knight and Seer looked up in awe and wonder, for they had reached the end of their quest.

     Here was a den of dragons, where they roosted away from mortal eyes. Here, they lived as wild beasts do, before it came time to care for some young wiggler who had chosen to cohabitate with a lusus. If all was set as the Deep Ones guided, then the answers to all the Seer’s concerns lie here. They continued through the wood until they reached a grassy meadow where dragons nested and tended to their eggs freely. 

–  What now, sister?  Knight asked Seer. 

I seek only a single hatchling among the brood of them, said the Seer, one that the Deep Ones have selected for the power of Light that seeps from it.

–  What makes this hatchling special? asked the Knight.

–  The Eye of Eyes tells me that this young dragon will grow to accomplish wondrous feats, that it will keep great scholars and mayors as its wards, and that it possesses great psychic power. With part of its vessel I may restore the magyyk in my Quills that has dimmed since we left the grip of the Lord.

–  And where is this great hatchling, when you can scarcely tell one dragon from another? The Knight gestured to the many dragons dwelling in the grove. How are you to make heads or tails of these varmints, whether they be legendary beast or dungwagon mule?

–  You underestimate Light, my brother, said the Seer. I will know the hatchling when I see it.

     So the Seer set her Sight on the myriad of beasts, from the smallest hatchling to the immense beasts flying vulture’s circles ‘round and ‘round in the blue sky. After a short time her eyes fell upon a dragon that was smaller from the rest. It was thin-skinned and frail, and though it was bigger than both of the Twins, its nervous huddling made it appear weak and unassuming. But in her vision, it glowed with the golden rays of Light marking it as a creature of great karmic fortune. Many threads of fate were tied to this little creature – the Seer was certain she had found her target.

There, said the Seer, there is my hatchling.

– Are you quite certain? asked the Knight, It looks as though it could hardly carry itself to the defecation pit.

–  I am quite certain, and I will prove it to you presently.

     The Seer walked across the grassy meadow, her golden robes skimming over the wildflowers that grew in colorful bunches. The hatchling was alone, too weak to play with the others of its size, and so it lifted its head and blinked wearily as the Seer’s shadow fell across it. As they faced one another, the Seer was overwhelmed with the Light that shone from its scales. Even more so was she surprised by the hatchling’s strange skin. For instead of the stark, solid white of its kind, this dragon was freckled in spots of blue and purple, a lovely constellation of speckles spread across its scales.

–  Hello there, my friend, said the Seer, crouching down. Do you know who I am?

–  I know not who you are, nor your companion, answered the spotted hatchling. I know the wild woodland and the cerulean sky, and that is all. What do you desire from me?

–  You do not know it yet, but you are an exceptionally powerful little thing.

–  You mock me, snorted the hatchling, I am the weakest of the herd, and it strains me to fly and to run with my nestmates. There is nothing special about me.

     The Knight stood beside his sister now, and he examined the hatchling with his head cocked curiously. What a curious creature, he said. It’s as though he’s been shat upon by a bluebird.

–  You will have to forgive my brother for his ignorance, said the Seer. Your perception of yourself is quite inaccurate. In truth you are a great source of old magyyk. It is for this reason that I have come to seek a favor from you.

The dragon was suspicious, and narrowed its teal eyes. And what might that be?

–  I have traveled across the land to ask you if you would please lend me one of your teeth.

     The spotted hatchling raised its head and flared its nostrils at the Seer, for it was quite indignant now and certain that it was being made a fool of. Flexing its translucent wings, the young dragon decided that it would humor the Seer until she realized she had made a silly mistake.

– Very well, Lady of the Golden Robes, said the hatchling. You may possess my sharpest fang if you will indulge me in a game.

–  That strikes me as a fair deal, agreed the Seer. The terms I leave to you, little dragon. What game shall we play?

The hatchling paused to consider, for it had not expected the strange woman to agree so readily. We will play a guessing game. You claim to be seeking old magyyks, and you seem to think that I have these powers you seek.

–  That is true, said the Seer with a nod. I am a vessel of the Light and am able to divine the future. You, too, have this ability, as the Deep Ones of the Ancient Black have whispered to me. 

–  Then a guessing game will be most appropriate. We shall play three rounds. If you guess, you win, if you fail, I win. The one that wins two rounds shall be granted their wish.

–  And what is your wish, dragon? asked the Knight.

–  If you fail to win my teeth, then I gobble this lady of Light right up.

     Offended, the Knight drew his sword, but his sister bade him to sheathe it. She looked slyly upon the dragon and smiled. 

–  The game is afoot, then, said the Seer. What will it be for the first round?

     The spotted hatchling stood and wrapped its tail ‘round its clawed feet. It had not expected the two humans to play along, and thought quickly of a way to get rid of these humans. It studied the Knight’s gleaming, ivory sword that glinted in the midday sun and knew that its nestmates flying overhead would be attracted by its shine, as a crow is drawn to silver coins. Perhaps one would fly down and dispose of the pesky Gods altogether. So the spotted hatchling demanded that the Knight unsheathe his blade and throw it like a javelin across the field. And before he did so, hatchling and Seer would both estimate how far it would travel.

I reckon it will fall just shy of ten meters, said the hatchling.

The Seer rubbed her chin. I believe it will cross the meadow and stop at fifty meters.

At this the hatchling laughed. You must believe your Knight is very strong. Go on, then. Throw the blade!

     The Knight looked at his sister in confusion and unsheathed the blade Caledfwlch, which had seen many a terrible battle and was flecked with the immortal blood of the Lord. He was unwilling to let it part from his hands, but trusted that the Seer knew what she was doing. He threw the sword and let it fly, but because it was so heavy it landed only nine meters away.

–  Ha! laughed the spotted hatchling. Round one belongs to me, Seer. One more failure and I shall have you for my dinner.

     But the Seer was quite calm. She sat beside the hatchling in the grass, her hands folded in her lap, and watched as the shadow of a large, adult dragon crossed the field. Attracted by the shining glint, it dived down towards the ground and picked up the sword by its teeth, holding it by the hilt. The Knight was aghast, but the dragon did not hold onto the sword for long. The sharp edges of its hilt poked the dragon’s mouth and startled it with pain, so it dropped the blade and flew on without it. The sword was now much farther away than before. Piercing the ground and gleaming still, Caledflwch was fifty meters away.

Round one belongs to me, said the Seer coolly.

     The spotted hatchling was annoyed now. As the Knight ran to retrieve his weapon, it devised another scheme to banish these so-called deities. The young dragon scowled and lashed its tail.

Another round, then, the hatchling conceded. At the end of the meadow where your companion stands fretting over his blade, there is a tall walnut tree that drops its seeds ‘round this time of year. 

–  I see it, said the Seer. What shall I guess?

 –  We shall crack open the shell of one of its fruits, and guess at how many seeds are enclosed within its skin. 

–  Very well, dragon. I believe that such fruits bear at most three walnut seeds, so that will be my guess.

–  The tree is an old one, and has barely survived the winter, sniffed the dragon. I predict its fruit will be scarce. There will be only a single walnut inside.

     So the two walked across the field and met the Knight under the walnut tree. He used the sharp tip of Caledfwlch to spear a fat, green pod from the branches and sliced it open on the blade. The hatchling had spoken true – the pod was small, and contained only one walnut.

Now our game has become interesting, said the Seer, who was not shaken by defeat. One more round decides both our fates.

     The Knight looked at the Seer curiously. He did not believe that his sister would truly admit defeat to this beast, nor that she would allow the dragon to slay her. Did the Seer still have a trick up her sleeve?

–  For the final game we will take another approach. Seer, face me, and you will look into my eyes. Determine how long it will take me to blink both of my eyes. The dragon’s glassy eyes were like those of a cat, and thus had not much need to blink at all. It knew this well, and continued, My own guess is that it will be two minutes and ten seconds before I must blink again.

–  My guess, said the Seer, is ten seconds.

The spotted hatchling guffawed at this. A brave guess! it crowed. Let the round begin, and we will see if Light favors you.

     The two sat across from one another and stared at each other evenly. The Knight stood by, fretting over his sister’s fate. As the seconds ticked by, it became clear to him that his sister’s guess was incorrect. His hand flitted to Caledfwlch’s hilt, and as he prepared to defend her from the hatchling, another Knight flew out of the trees. The second Knight stomped hard on the spotted hatchling’s tail, and in its surprise the dragon turned and roared at him. But the Seer’s guess was correct. The time-traveling Knight had caused the hatchling to blink.

Cheaters, the both of you! the hatchling protested.

–  At what point did you see me conspire with the Knight? asked the Seer, her face free of concern. Furthermore, did we agree that outside interference was prohibited?

– I… I… spluttered the dragon.

     Now the Knight had a stable time loop to tie together, so he bid farewell to his sister. The Seer gestured to the Knight left beside her.

–  The Knight’s decision to involve himself was as up to chance as any of our previous rounds, she reasoned. You will find that it is not cheating at all. I simply have Light on my side.

     The hatchling was perturbed – it did not intend to give up a tooth for this stranger, who had so rudely intruded upon its day to make foolish commands. 

–  Then take your prize, Seer, and I will open my maw for you, the spotted hatchling beckoned. It presented its mouth to the Seer, with its forked tongue and all of its many jagged teeth. I am not yet a yearling and have few teeth left that I’ve yet to shed. Reach in and take this tooth. It indicated the fang by whisking its teal tongue over the length of it. It will suit your needs plenty, if you speak the truth.

     The Seer nodded and reached her hand into the little dragon’s maw, and the Knight saw that its eyes shone with malice. Before he could leap forward to intervene, the dragon’s mouth began to snap shut. But instead of the Seer, it was the hatchling who began to cry out in great pain. For the Seer had withdrawn her Quills in secret, and it was one of the Quills now that skewered the dragon’s mouth from top to bottom, holding it open as one props the mouth of a tent with a steel rod. 

     The spotted hatchling’s blood seeped over the sharp edges of the Quill, and soon its pearly surface absorbed the viscous, turquoise stuff. The Seer of Light forced the dragon’s maw open and took the Quill out, where she painted the second Quill in the blood that dripped from its jowls. The dragon spat teal blood onto the grass, its teeth all tinted with blue, like a child who has eaten too many wildberries. In her hands, the Seer’s Quills glowed with a power that she had not felt since they were used against the Empress of Alternia. Their full might had been restored, and they trembled with the magyyk they had just imbibed.

–  Curse you, Seer, spat the hatchling. It lashed its tongue over its maw, licking up the spilled blood. You are a cheat and a liar, you have come into my home only to cause harm.

–  I must admit that my intent was not to hurt you, said the Seer with a sorrowful look. With the power you have lent me, allow me to make amends for the harm I’ve caused. Watch carefully.

     The Quills of Echidna were still shaking with power, tense and twitching with the pent-up magyyk inside of them. The Seer lifted them above her head and let a wild burst of bright blue erupt from her wands. They enveloped the spotted hatchling in a shield of incandescent light, and when the white haze subsided they saw that the hatchling had grown two sizes. It was large and sleek now, its wings and body painted with lovely dots of bright blues and purples. Its waxy wings blew the grass in all directions when it flapped them, and its mouth no longer dripped blood.

–  What magnificent magic is this! cried the dragon.

–  Please accept my apologies, bowed the Seer. At our first meeting, you did not believe that you were capable of great deeds. Now, I hope that your opinion has changed. Wonderful power resides in you.

     The spotted hatching towered over the Seer. It lowered its long, freckled neck and rested its cheek atop her hair, its chest rumbling with a deep purr.

–  My judgment of you was poor, said the hatchling. I feel as though I should test these powers you speak of, and leave the safe sanctity of my little forest.

–  Then you may travel with us, the Knight replied, and see the world for what it is.

 

     So it was that the spotted hatchling departed from its nestmates and came to travel the wide world, seeing many astounding things and performing marvelous deeds to the delight of all who met its acquaintance. The Seer’s prophecy came true – in time the hatchling grew to be a large and mighty dragon whose beautiful scales were a wonder to behold. During its lifetime it took many trolls as its wards, who were raised in turn to become artisans and scholars, doctors and revered tradesmen. The people came to call this dragon Pyralspite the Second, and today its shining tooth is housed at the Symposium of the Light-Seer, protected even now under the dominion of the Originator who blessed the hatchling on that fateful day.



 

The end.

Chapter Text

     The year 3710 is neither good nor bad. It is merely decent. This is what Karkat Vantas has decided as he peruses the aisles of Roosting River University’s public library. 

 

 

     The college overlooks the shore of said river, a nearly continent-spanning body of water that separates the Lesser Consort Sanctuarium from the rest of the continent of Nyxile. Here is where the secluded kingdoms of the consorts begin to mingle with the other Spheres. Because the library is public, not all the patrons are students. Stout salamanders and waddling turtles can be spotted high up on wheeled ladders, reaching for books or otherwise sleeping at study tables. Their webbed feet slap-slap clack-clack on the tiled floors. 

     It’s nearing sundown and the number of patrons is dwindling. Whispers and footsteps and flipping pages echo high into the vaulted ceilings. Columns of copper sunlight run across the floor in slats. 

     Karkat Vantas has broken from his small social circle to wander the campus library by himself. River-Roost is a busy town where boats chug along the water at all hours, blowing pillars of steam into the air. The smell of the fish market permeates half the city, and foot traffic is clogged by gaggles of laughing university students, book bags slung over their shoulders, hands cradling coffee in thermoses. The hot new trend in cross-continental travel is zeppelin shuttles – big obnoxious things that cast massive shadows over the city when they trundle across the sky. Supposedly they’re quite fast and economical, but Karkat doesn’t trust the bulky weight of them. Something about massive machines flying low to the ground strikes him as unseemly.

     So he has found a quiet spot and browses the collection idly. This society is still in the middle of decoding hundreds of thousands of terabytes locked within SBURB’s server beacons. Some books from Old Earth are on the shelves. Karkat has glanced at volumes regarding Baroque art, farming techniques of the Edo period, and computer programming in the 1970s. Some books from their SGRUB session remain, too – copies of books that their party was willing to leave behind for posterity. There’s a folio containing a sweep’s worth of Game Grub issues, a series on Mother Grub anatomy salvaged from Kanaya’s hive and annotated with modern additions. The books are old and grimy, their covers battered at the edges and their pages yellowed. Karkat picks a dusty book from the shelf. Practical Birthing Trench Protocol for the Rookie Cavernmeister. Last checkout, December 3658.

     Karkat wonders if skimming this volume will give him something to talk about with Kanaya, who has neurotically researched the health and welfare of the Mother Grub each time they’ve jumped through the centuries. This Grub has decades left ahead of her – he doesn’t know why she worries so much. But he misses her, and he doesn’t want the wedge between them to widen. So he takes Practical Birthing Trench Protocol from the shelf and goes to find an isolated place where he can read in peace.

     Down the spiral staircase he goes, passing floors of empty study rooms and students browsing their phones when they should be doing homework. Two young trolls lean against an aquarium built into a wall, talking to each other in low voices. They glimpse Karkat skulking past them on his way down the steps, then pause to giggle and blush. Caught in the act –  as if anyone gives a shit. Karkat rolls his eyes and makes his way to the first floor.

     The wide lobby has a checkered marble floor and columns that look freshly polished. Bored student librarians give Karkat only a brief glance as they flip through their required reading and click away on their computers, like they’re willing him not to interrupt them. He passes their counter and leaves through two glass doors that open to a courtyard. The benches are littered with flower petals from a cherry blossom tree in the middle of the grass, and the water fountains have been temporarily shut off. Amber light washes over the courtyard, gleaming on all the many tall windows of the library. It’s quiet, it’s warm, and more importantly, there’s no one out here to bug him. Karkat sweeps off the nearest bench and sits, cracking open the book and thumbing through the table of contents.

     Practical Protocol is boring as shit. There are diagrams Karkat can’t understand, sentences that take up half a page and pictures that make his stomach churn. There’s a practice test in the back for students majoring in wigglerology – though it’s over fifty years out of date. Either way, he doesn’t know the answer to any of the questions. 

     It’s still hard to believe that tending to the Mother Grub isn’t a jades-only affair anymore. That Kanaya could be convinced to stray from the only bit of tradition to which she ever felt attached. His friends are changing faster than he thought they would. Kanaya is all he has left since Vriska and Terezi and Sollux and Aradia and yes, even Tavros fucked off. He doesn’t like feeling that he doesn’t understand her anymore. After all the friends he’s lost, after everything that’s happened – he can’t lose Kanaya, too. 

     Centuries are passing by so quickly that Karkat feels unstuck from time, even though it’s only been a couple of months or so since they left the Medium. Or at least he thinks so. He’s trying to keep track, but it’s hard to accurately determine how many days have gone by. Culture shock creeps around every corner, every situation an open invitation to be ridiculed for not knowing something that should’ve been obvious – like how limebloods are a thing now, apparently, and why some wigglers are raised by adult trolls. Alternia ate ass, but at least things never ever fucking changed even a little bit. Here, every aspect of every little minute thing changes faster than an avocado goes bad. And as soon as Karkat finally understands something, it becomes obsolete in the next century that they occupy. He can’t keep up, and it’s difficult not to feel as though he’s being left behind.

     Karkat sighs, setting his book aside. He leans back against the bench and folds his arms, looking up at the library roof. It’s shingled with red clay tiles, which reflect the yellow light as the sun begins to sink. Pigeons roost in the gutters, as does one much larger, much more humanoid bird.

      “Hey, Karkitty,” snickers Davepeta.     
      Karkat flinches and shouts a stream of surprised obscenities. “What the fuck! How long have you been up there?”
      “Oh, relax, wouldya? I was just vibin’ up here when you came skulkin’ out.”
      “No, no, I call bullshit. I refuse to believe that you just happened to cross the river and end up at the same place it took me two trains to reach.”
     Davepeta shrugs. They stretch their legs, swinging them off the gutter. “Whatefur you say, Karkitty! I’m not gonnya argue with mew.”

     Davepeta makes Karkat a little uncomfurtable –  whoops, uncomfortable. They look very much like Dave, if Dave were smaller and had horns and a cat mouth and a swishing tail. They also look very much like Nepeta, or more accurately, the dozens of dead Nepetas Karkat has been forced to see during their years on the meteor. It’s like gazing at a gaudy ghost who’s wearing the face of your boyfriend. He doesn’t know which way to treat them – call them a dumb asshole like he would Dave, or awkwardly walk on apologetic eggshells the way he would for any other dead friend of his. They occupy a weird, meowrally – uh, morally – gray area. 

      “So what’re you doin’ ‘round these parts?” Davepeta trills. “I thought book-learnin’ was more Rosemary’s deal.”
      “Who the fuck is Rosemary?”
      “Oh! That’s their ship name, heehee, ‘cause like Rose, and Maryam?” Davepeta mimics shaking a thing of spices. “And it sounds like an herb that you sometimes sprinkle on–”
      “My god, all right, I get it, and might I add? It’s stupid as hell, never call them that again.”
      “M’kay.” Davepeta tilts their head in an infuriatingly disaffected way. “You gonnya answer my cawstion or not?”

     Karkat’s vitriol rolls off of Dave like water off a dolphin’s back, but something about Davepeta’s blasé nonchalance is so very Nepeta-like. The way she would steamroll past all of his objections and disdain with gentle, naive kindness. It’s just as they say – you don’t appreciate your friend’s steadfast willingness to put up with your bullshit until they get bludgeoned to death by a clown.

     The memory of Nepeta’s patient tolerance reactivates the cold, sinking feeling that Karkat feels in his gut when he remembers his long-late friends. He clears his throat and tries to speak a smidge less brusquely to Nepeta, who doesn’t even look affronted at all. Fuck, Davepeta. Davepeta is the name and not Nepeta. Silly mistake. Could happen to anyone.

      “I just wanted to take the opportunity to spend time somewhere that doesn’t reek of fish and body odor, and where there is no expectation that I engage in mind-numbing, driveling conversation with some bozo who will be dead the next time we jump forward.”     
      “I woulda thought you’d wanna tag along with Dave to go visit the Meower.” Davepeta scrunches their lips and scratches their head. “Which, I’m still not so sure I understand who he is supawssed to be!”
      “The Mayor is a charged subject for me right now. Dave has always been a Mayor-hog, anyway. It’s no skin off my pan to let them have some one-on-one bro time.”
      “You are being as aloof as efur, Karkitty!”

     Davepeta stands and leaps from the roof, where the wind catches in their scarlet wings. They were darker once, apparently, but the infusion of a second sprite has transmogrified them into the vibrant plumage of a parrot’s wings. The tips of their feathers are streaked with yellow and sour apple green. Davepeta puts their clawed hands in the pockets of their ankle-length corduroy dress.

     “Stop floating like that, you’re going to attract attention,” Karkat snips. “I’ve already been on the receiving end of reverential blubbering, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst fucking enemy.”     
     “D’aww, so humble.” Davepeta shirks gravity to float on their back, winding ‘round the trunk of the cherry blossom tree. “Me ‘n my sister get around just fine without gettin’ caught. Rosey didn’t have the time to write about us in her big ole book of secrets, after nyall!”
     “What about the glaringly obvious aspect of looking like you were put together by a spastic scrapbooker on a time crunch?” 

     Karkat winces as soon as he says it. This isn’t Dave, he must remember. There’s a little bit of Nepeta in there, and he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings.

      “People here got all kindsa caw-razy body modipurrcations,” Davepeta explains, looking positively unbothered. They settle onto a low-hanging branch and swing their feet, causing little pink petals to fall. “Ain’t you efur seen a human with a robot tail, or a troll with subfurmal implants? At best I get lil kiddos who wanna pet my tail or poke my wings. I’m just your furendly neighborhood subcawlture enthusiast!”
      “And what about… this whole situation?” Karkat gestures vaguely to their flickering skin.
      “Huh? Well I don’t gotta do it, I just thought it’d be helpful since you’re tryin’ to read out here and it’s gettin’ kinda dark.” Davepeta snaps their fingers, and their skin stops glowing. “See? Just like how Ka-nya-nya doesn’t have to go about all furescent all the time.”
      “I think I’m pretty much giving up on getting any literary enrichment done,” Karkat huffs. “I don’t even know why I came all the way out here. I think I just wanted to be left alone for a while.”
      Davepeta cocks their head. “You want me to buzz off?”
      “Something tells me that you won’t even if I tell you to.”
      “Yup that’s purrobably accurate!”

     In the distance, Karkat can see the blurry shape of a zeppelin shuttle bumbling through the pink and purple sky. The light is dying fast – he can’t even make out the cloud of vapor the shuttle leaves behind. River-Roost should be lighting up right about now. Gas lanterns switched on, illuminating stained glass windows with quavering hues. In the past couple centuries, the people of Nyxile have bred a species of bioluminescent tree that glows blue and green when the sun goes down. They should be bathing the streets in light soon, especially the ones that grow through buildings. 

     Karkat wonders what his friends are doing at the moment, whether they’ve settled for dinner someplace or else joined the paper lantern painting workshop that Jade was so keen on earlier. He wonders all of this, briefly, but does not check his phone. He sighs through his nostrils.

      “What do you even do once we skip forward?” Karkat asks. “You and your insufferable cat-sister, you both fuck off as soon as we touch land. Where do you go?”
      “I don’t ‘fuck off,’ Karkitty, you just don’t hang out with me,” purrs Davepeta. “I chill with my sister, and my Roxy, and Jadey and Callie and even John, when he lets me,” they count on their fingers. “Just ‘cause you don’t see me don’t mean I’m not around.”
      “And somehow you manage to attract less attention than we do.”
      Davepeta considers this, tapping their cheek with one claw. “Well! I don’t go looking for confurlict, for one thing. I think kebabbing ole Lord English has earned me a long lifetime of straight chillin’ and flyin’ under the radar! So now I am just takin’ my time to mellow out… hunt some big game… play Ye Ole Minecraft with my half-mom… you know, normal stuff when you’ve conquered Death itself!”
      “I can only begin to fathom how convenient it must be to take such a cavalier attitude about this.”
      “Catalier. I’m being catalier.”
      Karkat rolls his eyes. “Whatever.”
      “I dunno what else you expect, KitKat! I am still very much figuring out who I am, what I like, what I don’t like… I think it’s fun skipping through time like this! It’s like… it’s like… it’s like playing D&D, and you get to play out all these simulations that give you a better idea of what your character is really like!”
      “Oh Jesus, Dave said the exact same thing. The whole pseudo-FLARP bullshit.”
      “Haha, well, we do share some similarities! Even if I’m infurnitely cooler.”

     At this, Davepeta pushes their sunglasses up their nose. Karkat realizes that his leg is bouncing irritably, and tucks it under the bench.

     “You’re serious about being a different person, then, I’m assuming?”     
     “I know it would be much simpler for you if I said ‘yup, I’m just a purrfect mix of Dave and Nepeta and there is nothing more to it than that,’ but it ain’t so plain as that. Unfurtunately you are just going to have to regard me as any ole acquaintance!” 

     Davepeta swoops down from the tree, blowing petals every which way. They hover aloofly in front of Karkat, then extend their hand. Karkat just stares at it. They’re wearing a bunch of seemingly homemade bracelets – some yellow beads on a strip of leather, blue and green thread braided together into stripes. 

     “Let’s get introduced propurrly. I’m Davepeta! Nice to meet mew.”

     Karkat gives them a withering look, then finally takes their hand. Davepeta shakes it so hard that his whole arm jerks up and down.

      “Do I really have to say my name?”
      “Yes, dummy, that’s part of introducing yourself!”
      “I’m… Karkat.”
      “Haha yeah I already knew that.”

     The sun has sunk. The sky is dark blue now, and only traces of deep orange remain. Surrounding the courtyard on all sides is the dim light of the library windows. Davepeta throws themself onto the bench as crickets begin to whine.

     “You weren’t wrong, by the way,” Karkat says begrudgingly after a moment. “It would’ve made things easier, if you were just two halves of people I already know.”
     “I figured.”
      Karkat expects a better answer than that, so he doesn’t say anything for a bit. But Davepeta doesn’t elaborate, so he clears his throat to fill the silence. “So many of us are dead, or just decided they wanted nothing to do with our pathetic party of assholes anymore. It would have been… convenient if it turned out through some stupid nonsensical stroke of luck that we got at least one of our friends back.”
     “Nepeta, huh.”

     Karkat grits his teeth and nods just barely, staring hard at the ground. Davepeta’s face falls a bit, not because they’re sad but because it’s no fun to see Karkat Vantas so deflated. Like, he usually does go about life exuding the aura of a Victorian factory working child with a bone to pick, but it doesn’t make it any easier to see him in such a state. Davepeta has come to a few conclusions during their brief journeys through time immemorial – they like calamari, they don’t particularly care for tomatoes, they still like to draw, and make music, and they hate to see their old/new friends sad. They trill in a pitying sort of way.

      “Would it help to talk about it?”
      “What are you, my neuroanalancer?”
      “I don’t mean in a therapy way, silly! Gosh, you always pick the worst way to infurpret stuff. I mean in a furrend way. Furrends listen to each other's purroblems, don’t they?”
      “Even if you were wrong, I would be forced to agree on account of being tormented with the psychological ailments of our friends for the better part of my wigglerhood.” Karkat bites the inside of his cheek. “Fuck, ‘my’ friends? Why am I saying ‘our?’ Do you even – do you even remember what it was like to be one of us, or has it all been overwritten with… this?”
      “Of course I remeowmber what it was like to be Nepeta. How should I expurrlain… it is as if I was in a movie theater, and I was watching her whole life start to finish, from her purrspective. Not just the life you’re familiar with, but all the hundreds of thousands of Nepetas that ended up doomed. It’s not really me living it – I’m just watching a movie, you know? –  but movies sure have a way of sticking with you once they’re over. Especially sad ones!”
      “I’m not following. You are literally made up of her and Davesprite, how can you not really be them?”
      “You are furgetting that I am a sprite. A kernelsprite is a blank slate of uncoded data waiting to be furmatted. I am simply the platonic ideal of what Nepeta and Davesprite repurresent, not litterly them in the flesh. Uh, gosh…” Davepeta scratches their chin. “Basically, Skaia kin assigned me.”
      “It what?”
      “I’m making this confusing!” Davepeta sighs, throwing up their hands. “Look. Given everything I know about you –  you and all the many many many copies of you that I have known across timelines – I really thought you’d be happy about me being a new identity! Doesn’t it make things easier? Doesn’t it… gosh, I don’t know, relieve the emeowtional baggage? It isn’t as if I’m Jasprose, who is still essentially herself and has to watch her matesprit move on without her. I’m just me!”
     "It doesn’t make things easier because it means I don’t even fucking get to apologize!” Karkat shouts.

     There it is. A tense silence falls over them – entirely of Mr. Vantas’ own weaving. 

      “Aw, c’mon Kark Van Kat, what the hell do you need to apawlogize for?”
      “Uh, what don’t I need to apologize for? Where do I fucking begin! There’s the, oh, I don’t know, awful fucking way I treated Nepeta during our whole friendship, if you can even call it that, because all I did was ridicule and demean her–”
      “Karkat.” 
      “There’s the shitty way I treated everyone on the meteor because I was so busy self-flagellating with pity over our situation that I lashed out at anyone who stepped within flailing distance–”
      “Karkat.”
      “There’s the way I absolutely shat the recuperacoon on maintaining any sort of leadership role so that we were so disbanded and scattered by the time everything began to fall apart that there was no way I could even start to reign it in!”
      “Karkat!”
      “And the icing on the fucking cake is that I even entertained the inkling of an idea that Equius fucking Zahhak could stand up to someone of a higher caste, and got you both killed as a result!”
      “Karkat!”

     Karkat jumps. Davepeta quickly regains their temper and smooths their ginger hair back with one hand, only a tinge of olive coloring their cheeks. 

      “First of all, only some of that is your fault. Cat-tankerous purrsonality notwithstanding, many things about SGRUB were completely out of your clawtrol.”
      “That’s what Kanaya keeps telling me,” Karkat grumbles. “When she’s tired of my griping and doesn’t know what to say to shut me up.”
      “Well she’s right. Twelve players leaves a lot of room for error! So many contradicting attitudes and desires and meowtivations… you are purretty much begging for trouble to find mew.” Davepeta folds their hands on their knee, fiddling with their thumbs. “But I always found your ungracious cattitude to be very charming. And you didn’t make Nepeta leap from the vents. She did it of her own volition, for reasons that had nothing to do with you. She purrobably would have done it even if you explicitly told her not to.”

     Karkat hangs his head. Sighing, Davepeta ruffles his hair until he squawks indignantly.

      “Nepeta had a very… lonely life, out in the wastes. I think what she liked about you was how much you really, really cared about all of them, even if you purrtended you didn’t. She admired that despite your own low opinion of yourself, you didn’t stop it from seeing the best in other people. You were always the first to uplift someone, unless they were a total dickhead. And then you really let ‘em have it! She could only dream of being that assertive. It was something she felt she could only achieve if she was playing purrtend.”     
      “Does it even really matter, if I apologize at all.” It’s not a question, just a sad and resigned statement.
      “I think it’s the thought that counts, my dude.”
      “Then… I’m sorry. I’m sorry to Nepeta, and I’m sorry to you for being, well. The way that I am.”
      “I furgive you, Karkat. That’s what the emotion of friendship is all about.”

     Davepeta stands with their feet on the bench, towering over Karkat and fluttering their wings. A few loose feathers fall to earth as they drift in the air beside him. This time, Karkat knows better than to correct Davepeta for their blatant flaunting of mythical powers.

      “And since you got all that off your plate, Skaia said it’s my turn for closure.” Davepeta places their hands on their hips. “Nepeta liked you a lot, Karkitty. Like, a lot a lot. Neck deep in the scarlet throes.”     
     Karkat’s heart sinks. “I know.”
      “I know you know , but she never got to tell you in person. Because she was scared, and she knew how intensely you feel things, how much you care when you really feel strongly about something, and she was afraid of what that meant. Whether you would never talk to her again, or worse, if you would never let her live it down!”
      “I wouldn’t–” Karkat trails off, unable to defend himself. “I, she knew I wouldn’t have–”
      “Dude! It’s all right. It’s in the past.” Davepeta smiles. “I’m not saying all this to make you feel bad. I’m just doing what I think Nepeta deserves. You always understood your friends really well, Karkat. Purrobably better than they knew themselves. I know you know about Nepeta’s whole deal. Maybe you thought it was embarrassing, and maybe you wished she would nefur admit it to your face. But here I am! Nepeta was head over heels for ya, Vantas, and guess what? I like you just fine, myself.”
      Karkat feels the heat in his face rise. “Uh, what?”
      “You heard me.” Davepeta puts their hands in their pockets. “Look, I’m not tryna swoop in and snatch you away from Dave, ‘cause I got better meownners than that. I just wanted to get it out there. I think that’s the kinda purrson I wanna be! Someone who just goes for it, and doesn’t worry about what other people will think about them. And I feel a lot better now that I’ve told you! Like, whew. Talk about a weight off my chest.”
      “That’s great for you, but I am seriously at a fucking loss as to what you expect me to say to all that.”
      “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. All I did was confess, Karkitty, it’s not like I’m propurrsitioning you.” They shrug. “The world is brand new, with lots of things to explore and expurrience, and I don’t wanna go into it bogged down with all these icky regrets and baggage. So now you know how Nepeta felt, how I feel, and we can move furward with our beautyifful furrendship.”

     Karkat is about to open his mouth to say something that serves no purpose whatsoever but to deflect his discomfort, but Davepeta interrupts him by leaning forward and nuzzling their cheek against the top of his head like an oversized cat. Then they plant a little peck on his forehead.

     “Hey! What the hell!”
     “Haha, got ‘im.”

     Davepeta drifts out of reach before Karkat can instinctively smack them. Yes, Karkat is miffed, but it’s outweighed by the immense respect he has for Davepeta right now. When’s the last time he’s been able to be that vulnerable and honest without peppering it with a sour aftertaste of hostility? It’s all very clear to Karkat now: love or hate Davepeta, they do be spitting straight facts right now.

 

     Oh, to be two adolescent war-torn deities on a warm spring night, the smell of cherry blossoms in the air, the hum of whining crickets, the shadows of students passing the dimly-lit windows above. Somewhere, over the river and into the city, where paper lanterns float across the water and wind chimes hang from little storefront signs, there might be teenaged deities eating dinner with trolls and Carapacians and consorts alike, looking over the hills to the Lesser Consort Sanctuarium where lights are few and far between amongst the dark hills. There might be a god or two causing their own bout of mischief. Someone who uses their power of flight too liberally, someone using Space to shrink the barstool of an impolite painting instructor. All kinds of tomfoolery and shenanigans that will surely land our Originators in hot water again, resulting in a convenient timeskip and abuse of the Rogue’s uncanny knack for document forgery. But things are more pedestrian here at Roosting River University.

     Unbeknownst to Karkat Vantas and Davepeta As-Of-Yet-Unsurnamed, they are not entirely alone. There are disbelieving amphibian eyes in the brushes, peeking through leaves after a study break spent napping in the weeds. There are furtive glances from the third floor windows, bored students who got tired of writing essays and instead looked out the window to see a flickering neon cat-troll floating in the air. There are witnesses rubbing their bleary eyes and thinking to themselves that, yes, it’s probably time to head back to the dorm and go to bed. And maybe in the morning when they are quite sure that what they saw was not an illusion, they will gossip with their classmates and compare notes and go to the local paper. By this time, however, I’m sure the Originators will already be well on their way to the next adventure.

     So we’ll close the book on this brief encounter, and allow these two to bask in the emotion called friendship.

Chapter Text

The following tale is rarely included in the canon of the Originators due to its relative obscurity and lack of witnesses. As such, many key elements to the story are often reinvented based on the whims of its teller. First based upon sparse accounts recorded in The Belfry Bellower and The Inquisitive Iguana, the tale was later dramatized in the 3920 stage play The Crow and the Cat.

 

     Before the two moons rose in the night and fell in the morning, before the seven and a half continents were formed and before even the Western Wastes possessed a grain of sand, the Knight of Blood had two familiars.

     They were capricious creatures who switched their loyalty often. At times would the cat lurk in the folds of the Knight’s robes, listening intently and remembering all. And at other times would the crow fly close to the Witch of Space, nesting in her hood and carrying her messages across the land. But no matter where they were, Cat and Crow would remain by each other’s side. As one watched, the other listened, and as one spoke the other remembered. So it was that Cat and Crow were emissaries of the Originators to the Four Spheres.

     But before Crow and Cat came to serve Them, there was a time during which they were both wild as the day they were born. Cat was vicious and recalcitrant, and would bite the hand of whosoever extended goodwill. So too was Crow wicked and selfish, and would hoodwink even a wiggler of its only boondollar for a simple laugh. All who knew of Cat and Crow knew that they were boorish beasts, and thus the two animals lived solitary lives without hearth nor home.

     One day it came to be that the Knight of Blood was riding through a country town, when not even the washmaids had arisen to complete the morning’s work. As he passed a meager garden, the Knight was met with Crow perched upon the fence, and Cat with its tail curled ‘round its paws, sitting in the grass and smiling quite slyly. The Knight tipped the wide brim of his hat to the two strangers, of whose exploits he was unaware.

–  Good morning to you, my friends, said the Knight, as he was keen to meet the acquaintance of strangers.

–  Good morrow to you, stranger, crawed Crow.

–  Aye, Witch grant ye pleasant tidings, meowed Cat.

–  Do you realize not with whom you speak? asked the Knight, who was confused. He had never met a beast under the sun nor moons who did not know an Originator when they saw one.

–  Begging your pardons, Sir, but I know only the forest and the river and of tasty field mice, said Cat.

–  I too am but an ignorant bird, and know only the tree branches and the sky and where to feast upon delicious corn, said Crow.

–  Why, this is no good. Every man and beast must know where they come from, and the ones to whom they owe their lives. You are knowing of the Witch, is that right, my friend the Cat?

–  I am only knowing of the common phrasing, Sir, and know not who this Witch may be.

–  Well! cried the Knight of Blood. Could it truly be that you do not know of the Originators, or how they came to settle this wild world?

–  Goodness, no, demurred Cat, who began to wash its face with one black paw.

–  Then I say it is time you learned a very important lesson!

     Little did the Knight of Blood know that Crow and Cat were far from ignorant, and knew very well what an Originator was. In fact, they even knew that they were speaking to the Knight himself. The two wily animals had tired of playing pranks upon common folks and children, and decided this was the perfect opportunity to have a bit of fun. Crow and Cat shared a cheeky look as they prepared to play even a God for a fool.

     The Knight led Cat and Crow to a place where a babbling stream ran through the tall, dry grass. There were many silver fishes swimming in the clear water, darting among the algae-covered rocks. Crow perched upon a boulder, while Cat looked curiously at all the tasty fish under the water. The Knight gestured to the stream.

–  Here is evidence of the life which sustains us all, explained the Knight of Blood. For it is life-giving water that is the key to our survival. It is by the grace of the Maid that there is clean, clear water to drink, with many lush forests and fields to support our homes and grow our food. 

–  Why, stranger, I must disagree with you, squawked the Crow, who was rambunctious and found delight in being a contrarian. It is by the labor of the Birds that the land is plentiful and green.

The Knight was astounded. And how might that be, Crow?

–  It is the Birds who carry the seeds from their trees and across the plains and forests to be replanted, so that all the Spheres of the world may enjoy their fruit, said the Crow with a smug ruffle of its wings. We dust our wings in the pollen of wildflowers, and disperse them far and wide. We eat the pests that plague the farmland, Why, if it were not for the Birds, the world these Originators created would be a barren waste, with nary a blueberry bush to feed the hungry wigglers.

–  So too do the Cats spread seed and grain, purred Cat, and prey upon the rats and basilisks that chew through farmer’s crop. When we feast upon these vermin, we ensure the balance of a harmonious and healthy land.

     At this, the Knight was unsure how to respond, as it was true what Crow and Cat had said. Though it was the Maid who bade the oceans to cede, it was the likes of Crow and Cat who tended to the land before the Four Spheres had settled. He decided that another lesson would teach the two beasts to respect their Originators.

     So the Knight led Cat and Crow to an open field, where the sky was clear and one could see the morning sun shining bright. He pointed to the star and asked the animals, Do you see the Sun as it traverses the sky into the day?

–  We see it, replied Crow and Cat.

–  It is by the grace of your Originators, the Witch of Space and the Knight of Time, that we are able to enjoy the Sun for its life-giving rays and gentle warmth. For the Witch plucked the Earth from the sky to set its course upon a new orbit, that the sun would kiss the land and yet not burn the flesh of its Trollian inhabitants. And by the grace of the Knight, it is so that Time passes from dawn till dusk, granting us the dark night during which we may rest, and the bright day to guide our way as we work.

–  Stranger, day nor night mean little to us beast-folk, meowed Cat, for I take my rest whenever I so please. And it is in the night that I am most active, as I must peer into the dark with my glowing eyes to catch the nocturnal mice and snake-shrews.

–  Unlucky it is for me, stranger, that birdfolk must sleep in the night when Crows are least able to be spotted. Crow puffed out its feathers. It is for the unfortunate passage of Time that I must do my hunting in the daytime, where the farmer and the snake-shrew might see my black feathers.

–  If it were up to me, the Sun would hang all day, Cat said, so that its rays may warm my fur. And if the Sun were to shine forever, I could see my prey all the better, and hunt them in the brush without care.

–  I would so have it that the Moons hung at all times in the dark and starry night, crawed Crow, so I could fly unspotted and do as the Birds are wont to do without spying eyes, and I could devour all the many seeds and berries I desired.

     Now the Knight was at a loss. He thought very hard as to how he might convince these ignorant animals that the Originators were real, and that they had created the Earth anew for the Four Spheres to live in harmony among nature. Privately, however, Crow and Cat were amused as can be. They looked at each other with sneaky grins, as it became quite clear that they had rankled the Knight.

–  Follow me again to the babbling stream, sighed the Knight, and I shall show you my final lesson.

     And presently they returned to the clear water. The Knight sat on the edge of the stream, near enough that the water nearly wetted the soles of his boots. Now the cherry blossom trees were beginning to shed, and pink petals drifted by, carried downstream by the fast water. 

–  So you proclaim that the grace of the Gods has done nothing for you, that it is thanks to the labor of the animals and the plants that the Four Spheres thrive at all. Well, there is one Aspect still that the beasts have no control over, and it is the Aspect that I reside over above all.

–  What are you going on about, stranger? asked Crow and Cat.

–  It is the Aspect of Blood, the force that binds together each and every body on this Earth. Though it oft changes its hue, it serves the same purpose. Thus we call our families our bloodlines, that our blood is passed from life to life, changing form but never dying.

     The Knight withdrew a hunting knife from his belt and slit the end of his finger. Cat and Crow watched, dismayed, as his crimson blood dripped into the stream. Billows of deep red bloomed beneath the surface. The two animals peered over the edge of the tall grass and watched as the red cloud spread, and each saw a separate reflection in its color. They saw each of their past lives, all the lifetimes they spent on Earth since the time the Originators returned to walk the land. They saw every troll and human and mouse and insect and consort and basilisk they had ever been, all as clear as day to them, as easy to recall as what they had eaten for breakfast. 

–  What sorcery is this? squawked Crow.

–  I know not what you mean, said the Knight with a crafty smile, what do you see?

     Crow looked deep into the blooming red and saw their very first life, when they were a rambunctious crow with a nest high up in a hot city, where many humans roosted and the sun burned hot. They saw a shower of sparks and a star that burned brilliant Green, they saw that they were human, once, that they could walk among mortals and fight and bleed and cry as they did. They saw the shards of their very soul that were split up and splintered between many vessels, until they came to rest on the other side of the Final Door and returned once more to the Earth. Crow was stricken by this – how could they have forgotten it all? They spread their wings and cried out in pain.

–  What fantastic sights! blurted Cat, who had much to see in the bloody water. 

     Cat saw the faces of each creature that lived with their own Blood, all the way back to the very first days Before Victory. They saw wild cats that lived on ocean fish and seagulls, who were company to Carpacians and were tended to by the Rogue. They saw lusii prowling in the dark jungles of a faraway island, they saw a massive cat with two maws, carrying a young wiggler on its back. And they saw a little cat tucked into a baby’s casket, with a tall woman who wept over its corpse, the feeling of gentle raindrops, and the strong scent of roses.

–  And what is the meaning of these visions, Knight? cried Cat.

–  Ah, and by what means do you know me as a Knight? he replied, knowing well that he had bested the beasts.

–  All of us in the Kingdom of Cats can tell an Originator when we see one, it spat.

–  So too do the Kingdom of Birds, agreed Crow.

–  Well it seems, then, that we have both hoodwinked the other! laughed the Knight.

 

     And so it was that Crow and Cat remembered their past lives, and of the roles that they had played Before Victory. They drank from the stream and were blessed with the kiss of everlasting life, that even if their mortal bodies died, they would return to their masters in the new form they had taken. So Crow and Cat travelled the vast world in the shadows of the Gods, and serve as their messengers to this very day. It is for this reason that one must always step out of the way of a black cat, for it might have a very important message to pass along. And one must hush their voice when in the company of Crows, for one might be the ever-listening ambassador of the Originators.




The end.

Chapter Text

     The year 3945 is a good year for wandering through the wilderness. Which Jade Harley has done in every era her friends have visited – so she’s kind of an expert by now.

 

     In the untouched woods of the Isle of Scales, the forest floor is almost soft enough to walk barefoot. Jade Harley walked barefoot to this spot anyway, because her feet are quite calloused, and she is well acquainted with how to avoid the rocks and sticks that lurk under the creeping ivy and moss. Here, you only see another sentient being every twenty kilometers or so. Woodsmen collecting firewood, salamanders rustling through the undergrowth with kindling strapped to their backs. Jade has even spotted a rabbit trap – though whichever hunter set it up has yet to catch anything.

     Some sort of strange, undiscovered songbird is calling a back-and-forth duet with another of its kind far off in the branches. Jade lost track of her companions a little while ago. She is alone.

     Jade Harley has spent much of her time on Earth C alone. She’s done all the heavy lifting for them, anyway, so hasn’t she earned this time to herself? She’s gently placed Earth along the orbital path of a yellow dwarf, one with a softer light that will not burn the flesh – the star that the people of this world call Aruna Prime. She’s set two little satellites into the sky to tug upon the tides and light up the night – Aglibol-B and Morrigan-S3 – a familiar sight for the trolls, though they shine neither pink nor green. One would assume that after her Long Solitude, she would desperately cling to anyone within a two foot radius. Stay where I can see you, don’t go where I can’t follow. And Jade is surprised that she doesn’t feel this way, too. There is a force inside of her that pushes everything and everyone away. Like trying to force together two magnets on the same side. Gravity and magnetism are launching her further away, away into a liminal space where she is afraid her friends cannot follow her.

     And right now that liminal space is behind a misty waterfall, where the rush of running water drowns out Jade’s thoughts and blankets her in a cool, welcoming darkness. She floats with her feet just above the slimy rocks below, her Bec ears flicking water droplets every which way.

     If you asked her why she chose this place, or why she decided to throw caution to the wind and dump her backpack and half of her clothes at the waterfall’s edge, Jade Harley would probably not have a very good answer. It reminded me of home, she might say with a shrug, and maybe you would believe her. She grew up on a tropical island, after all. Well. Formerly tropical. It’s true that when Jade was younger, she would go down to the tidal pools after high tide and use the end of a stick to poke at all the little creatures that washed up. Baby octopuses and clam shells, sea slugs and starfish. A quaint community living in a tiny bubble – until the waves carried them away again. Like something out of a Squiddles! short. Jade wished that the pools were big enough to hold her – or that she was small enough to fit – and for a brief while she’d make some new, colorful, writhing, nautical friends.

     She might explain all of the above to you as you nodded, half-listening, still very confused why she put herself in the position of having her things stolen while she’s underwater. Which would never happen. Not on this Earth, not out in the Isle of Scales, a half-continent slow to be settled.

     Jade came here with John. John and Davepeta, who buzzes in her periphery like an elusive gnat flying ‘round her face. John the ghost, John the resurrected, John the hero who brought them all back to life. Supposedly. Jade feels like the kooky neighborhood psychic, summoning spirits through her crystal ball and communing with phantoms of the past. Ghost Boy and Frankenstein Davesprite are pleasant company when Jade pushes herself to smile and nod along and not freak out, not scream and tear her hair out and stamp her foot and say this is not right! This is not right! How can this be normal, how can I start over? But it has to be normal, accepting the presence of these two in her life. It has to be normal, and she has to start over, because if she doesn’t, what else is she supposed to do?

     Jade lifts her face from the water and spits a stream of water across the pool.

     Despite her frustration and despite the aching, yawning pit of loneliness inside of her that has not been filled no matter where or when they go, a commitment is a commitment, and bailing on her friends to wander the dark woods like a horror movie monster is probably not very cool of Jade. Or maybe it is? She has had a hard time adjusting to what is and is not socially acceptable, especially considering that half of our celestial group grew up in utter isolation, and each has wildly differing expectations of politeness. So she should probably check in and confirm for them that, no, she hasn’t been eaten by a bear or a wolfhound or a giant land-walking coelacanth.

     Jade Harley kicks against the algae-eaten rocks and emerges from the waterfall like parting a curtain. As you can imagine, she is very surprised to see a Dersite rifling through her possessions. He’s wearing ill-fitting clothes that drape him like a tunic, tied ‘round his waist by a faded leather belt. His carapace is marked with gray scratches.

     The Dersite stares at Jade. Jade stares at the Dersite. They go on like this for a while until the Dersite stands, clutches her bag to his chest, and takes off running into the trees.

     “Hey!” Jade hollers. She’s shocked at the volume of her own voice, which cracks when she yells. “Get back here!”

     But he’s already gone. Jade Harley shouts a stream of profanity that causes a flock of sparrows to retreat a nearby tree. She breaststrokes across the pool and clambers up onto the rocks, her wet feet slipping on the flat, mossy stones. Fumbling with the pile of clothes she dumped on the ground, Jade gets her damp handprints all over her new dress and pulls it over her head. Unceremoniously, she shakes her hair very hard, spraying water in every direction. Then she ties her scarf in a loose knot atop her Bec ears and runs after the thief.

     Very gradually, the way you might notice the individual grains dropping in an hourglass, Jade Harley has felt the dominion of the Green Sun leave her. She doesn’t know how quickly, or for how long she’ll be able to harness its fearsome power of teleportation. And while any other member of her party might give her flack for doing so, can you really blame a girl for wanting to teleport while she’s able? Especially given that she wasted her powers on teleporting from the couch to the bathroom to her bed to the couch again – depression sucks the fun out of everything. This is all to say that Jade knows she shouldn’t use Bec’s powers to capture the Dersite thief, but a little indulgence couldn’t hurt.

     Jade’s heel hits the bare earth, and she feels her body snap shut like a paper fan. Everything is sour and neon and terribly bright, and when she reemerges twenty yards ahead, the world is swimming in a chartreuse haze. She’s closing in on him, and he gives a choked sound of surprise when he sees how near she’s drawn.

     “Don’t make me chase you!” Jade yells ahead, “This is embarrassing for both of us!”

     The Dersite gives no response, but he nearly trips on a gnarled root growing out of the ground. He catches his footing and veers off to the left, where the path is overgrown and the ivy reaches his knees. Jade says another very rude word – no telling what she might step on if she continues on foot. But then the thief yanks something unfamiliar from his cloak; flat and silver, dinged at the edges and shaped like a skateboard, he tosses it to the ground and jumps on top of it. It makes a sound like boiling water, and what comes out of it blasts the ivy back with white-hot exhaust. The board carries him away much faster than before, so Jade Harley decides to cheat as well. She kicks off the ground and flies right after him.

     Flying is much cooler when you’re doing it in the Medium, or when you’re emerging from the flaming birth of a Green Sun. Flying through thick underbrush is not so cool. Jade sticks her tongue out and makes a face when she flies headlong into a spiderweb, wiping it from her lenses. Her hair whips around her in wild coils as she zips under low-hanging branches and ropes of flowering vines. A tree trunk abruptly appears before her, so with a sound like a clap of thunder she vanishes herself and emerges on the other side of it, crackling with static electricity, her hair standing on end.

     “It’s rude to ignore someone when they’re talking to you, you know!” she tries again.
     The Dersite looks back, then does a double-take when he sees how she’s able to keep up with him.

     Unluckily for Jade, he returns his focus to his surroundings just quickly enough to avoid getting knocked out by a branch. His hoverboard groans against the pressure he exerts when he changes course – he’s trying to ride zigzag to throw her off. It’s hard to outrun an enemy whose territory spans the entire known Universe, though, and hell hath no fury like a Witch scorned.

     Jade peers through the trees and focuses on where the Dersite will be – forty meters ahead, if he keeps on the same track. Then she grits her teeth and lets the Sun wash over her, a fierce and bitter burn that she can taste in the back of her throat. Forty meters head, she appears in a blaze of verdant flames, her skin hissing with flickering licks of lightning. The Dersite can’t swerve quickly enough. Still smoldering with the Sun’s bright aftertaste, Jade seizes him by the front of his robes and yanks him from his hoverboard, which continues for a while without him before nosediving into the ivy.

     “Got you,” she says.

     Her eye catches movement at his waistline. Before she can even see the glint of his knife, she throws him down into the underbrush. He tries to scramble away, but Jade stomps on the end of his cloak to pin him in place. The Dersite swipes at her with the short, jagged edge of a blade that looks handmade, the handle whittled unevenly and etched with scratches. Instinctively, Jade seizes his wrist to stop him. What’s strange, though, is that he doesn’t try to resist with his free arm. She takes a closer look, and realizes that he doesn’t have another arm. Jade examines his face, and sees a hard, familiar shine in his narrowed eyes, his mouth ground tight in a mean scowl. A deep scar runs down his brow and into his cheek, faded and dull by the passage of time.

     “I know you!” Jade gasps.
     “No shit you know me,” he spits, twisting his arm in an attempt to free himself from her grasp.
     “Were you following me?”
     “All I know is I can tell a tourist when I sees one,” he barks back, “and in these woods, unattended luggage is free game to the woodsfolk.”
     “It wasn’t unattended.”
     “If your eyes ain’t on it, it’s unattended.”

     Jade sighs.

     “Look, there’s hardly anything in that bag worth stealing, okay? Like you said, I’m a tourist. The only thing of interest you’ll find in there is some maps and a tomato.” She rubs the back of her neck. “Um, you can have the tomato. But I’d like the rest of my stuff back, okay? I’m giving you the chance to do the dignified thing and return it yourself. That sounds more respectful than zapping it out of your hands, doesn’t it?”

     The Dersite recoils when he sees the sheen of chartreuse Sun envelope her silhouette, only for a moment. He looks to the satchel, which he’s hung across his chest. Then he looks again to Jade. He nods, and she releases him. Jade accepts the bag when he passes it to her, and she double-checks its contents. True to her word, she gives him the tomato inside.

     Jade extends her hand. “Well, it’s been a while. If you’ve forgotten, my name is Jade Harley.”
     Not without a grimace, he shakes her hand. “Jack.”

 

 

     The Isle of Scales can be a lonely place. Where there’s a thousand trees for every one person, and the chattering of consorts echo through the groves like birdsong, it can be easy to lose yourself in the gloomy expanse. As Jade and Jack Noir crunch through the tangled forest floor, Jack keeps his hand on his knife. Jade doesn’t know why – nothing is out here, nothing and no one. She decides that he’s not so much looking out for danger as he’s pretending that living out here is somehow exciting. Sometimes you have to make your own fun.

     “You’ve lived in these woods for a while, then?” Jade asks.
     “Eight hundred years, give or take a decade,” he responds gruffly. “Hard to tell. Don’t have a calendar.”
     “It’s been a thousand and four years since we entered this universe. You must have come along for the ride when I introduced the fauna of our planets to Earth.”
     Jack shrugs. He’s not good for conversation, Jade has realized.

     Shortly, they come across a break in the trees. A little settlement comes into view, part campsite and part homestead. It looks as if the folks who live here are unsure whether it’s a permanent home or not – the two sheds standing beside each other don’t look like they can be called proper cabins, but it’s probably better than living in a tent. A firepit is still smoking with the dying embers of the previous night, and gray-brown tunics are hung up on a clothesline to dry. A rusty cage holds a pair of chickens, who flutter their wings and look the other way when Jade and Jack appear at the edge of the woods.

     “This is where you stay?”
     Jack gives a curt nod. He points to a log before the firepit, grown over with moss and grooved from the thousands of asses that have sat on it before. “You can sit.”

     So she does.

     One of the shed doors creaks when Jack shuts it behind him. There’s the rattling of metal and wood from inside. Jade rubs her arms – her hair and clothes are still damp, so she’s starting to get chilly. She leans forward and whisks her hand over the kindling, which hisses to life with the flames of the Sun. Jade is in the middle of warming her hands over the green fire when Jack reemerges from the shed. Something is under his arm. Jade studies it curiously – it’s a battered metal tin filled with what looks like grits, or some other type of unappetizing mash. It’s stained with a reddish tint, and Jade realizes he chopped her tomato into it.

     He sits on the other end of the log and offers it to her without looking in Jade’s direction. Not wanting to be rude, she takes one of the tarnished forks and takes a cautious bite. It’s lukewarm, and mostly flavorless. She suppresses a grimace. Jack sets the tin on his lap and wolfs the rest of it down.

     “Do you live here alone?” Jade asks.
     Jack shakes his head and wipes a smear of food from his face.
     “Oh. Do you have, like… a wife, or something?”
     Jack laughs in a gruff, mean-spirited way. “No.”
     “Where’s everyone else, then?”

     Jack jerks his head to the sheds again, and Jade looks more closely. As if they’ve been summoned, shapes begin to appear in the shadows. More Dersites shuffle into view. Jade counts three in total – a lumbering giant of a man, a slender and slouching figure, and a tiny Dersite barely three feet tall. They peer at Jade without making eye contact, somewhere between shyness and real fear.

     Jack points at each one. “Hermetic Bumpkin. Deadpan Drudger. Country Derelict.”
     “Those are names they chose themselves?”
     “I named ‘em.”
     Jade frowns. “I see.”

     Jack finishes the tin and tosses it beside him. CD rushes forward to pick it up, then waddles off to wash it. Jade notices him swipe his finger along the bottom for whatever’s left. She’s starting to get the idea that Jack is not a very nice leader. The weight of this revelation is about as shocking as learning that water is wet. Jack clears his throat.

     “You can go now. People looking for you.”
     “You’re that eager to get rid of me, huh?”
     Jack shrugs. “Didn’t have to follow me.”
     “Well… I was just curious about how you’re doing out here. We didn’t even know if you managed to survive to the other side.”
     “Now you know,” he snips. “So you can go.”
     A little miffed, Jade stands and brushes the dust from her dress. “Eight hundred years hasn’t done much for you, you know that? I think I liked you better when you were a dog.”

     Jack’s lackeys recoil when she says this. They must know it’s a sore subject for him, or else they simply know what happens when you talk back to Jack Noir. But Jade is not afraid of Jack Noir. So when he stands and scowls at her with the rumble of a growl in the back of his throat, she stands her ground.

     “What are you going to do, Jack? Bark at me?”

     He lunges forward quicker than she expects. Jade reaches into her bag, and before he can slice at her, she takes out a tightly-rolled map and thwacks him upside the head with it. He’s surprised enough to stop and shake his head, looking a little dazed. The other three Dersites vanish into the other shed, too afraid to watch how the rest of this plays out.

     “What the hell are you–”
     “Bad! Bad Jack!” Jade shouts, pointing a finger at him. “We don’t act like that!”
     “Stop talking to me like–”
     “Shh! That’s bad behavior!”

     He growls at her again, baring his many sharp teeth, and Jade meets his eye. Unblinking, she points the rolled-up map at his face. It feels like their standoff goes on for quite a while, but finally, Jack is the first to yield. He lowers his blade and tucks it into his tunic, then plunks back into his seat before the green fire. Jade takes a cautious seat beside him. She doesn’t know why; now seems like the right time to dip. Something is holding her back, though. Maybe just the glimmer of hope that even this little road bump in her life can have the slightest bit of closure.

     “Thank you, for allowing me to ascend to god tier,” Jade tries. “And for not killing the Genesis Frog.”
     Jack grunts in response, poking the firepit with a long stick.
     “I still think it’s shitty that you killed my friends’ parents, and a whole bunch of other people, and destroyed my moon, and–”
     “I get it,” he snaps. “Didn’t aim to apologize.”
     “No, I figured you wouldn’t. After all, it was eight hundred years ago. I bet you barely remember it.”
     At this, Jack shakes his head. “Every day since I been on this ball of dirt has been a torture. Won’t ever forget what it was like to wear the Ring.” He jabs the fire again, and emerald embers spit into the air. “Won’t ever forget that.”

     Jade sighs pityingly. She reaches into her hair and unties her scarf, letting her Bec ears twitch freely. Jack watches her out of the corner of his eye.

     “You know, most Carapacians from our sessions were able to fluidly adapt to life here. Upbringing children, raising the Mother Grub, running local government, setting up infrastructure… the Mayor is still kicking around, too, with the Parcel Minister as his right hand woman. They’ve made this place a really nice place to live.”

     Jack perks up at the name of the other ringbearer, but tries not to show it. Jade continues.

     “There’s a lot more out there than just this isle. You could be doing something other than wasting away in the middle of the woods. You could, I don’t know, do something constructive?”
     Jack sneers. “Like write parking tickets. Pass.”
     “Wow, you have no imagination whatsoever.”

     Jade picks up a rock and chucks it into the firepit. It hiccups with a bright green burst of flame, then settles again.

     “Maybe it’s for the best that you’re here. It’s like a self-imposed exile.”
     Jack doesn’t say anything.
     “Though it seems like you didn’t get all the stabbing out of your system. That’s a shame.”

     Jack turns slowly and examines her. She feels a shiver go down her spine as the corner of his mouth ticks downward, a look that’s mean, but not stab-you-in-the-gut mean.

     “I don’t think I could stab you if I wanted to.”
     “After eight hundred years, huh?”
     “The Ring,” he responds curtly, “is one hell of a drug.”
     Jade rests her cheek in her hand. “I guess I’ll have to take that as a compliment, then.”

 

     Sometimes things don’t wrap up as neatly as you’d like. There are moments where there is not much catharsis to be had, where no matter how ripe the potential, something just doesn’t fall into place. Not everything can always be tied with a bow and called finished with a handshake and a hug and two characters who understand each other completely now, whose pasts are far behind them, all grievances and grudges healed by a few lines of dialogue. You have probably felt this way many times if your name is Jade Harley. You might also relate to this sentiment if you are a Lalonde carrying thirteen-to-sixteen years of baggage on your back, or if you are a Pyrope searching the event horizon for someone who never properly said goodbye, or if you are either Dirk Strider or Jake English, taking baby steps in the first months of post-breakup awkwardness. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get close enough.

     Jade Harley will probably not see Jack Noir again after this. He will probably continue out his days here, living in exile with the three Dersites he uses to relive the old days, when he was still part of a Crew – at least until they get fed up with him and run away. And maybe in his chest of stolen treasures, all alone, he will unearth the old, frayed uniform that he wore across universes and to the ends of Paradox Space, the old spade stitched into it from that spiteful old Queen, and he will remember what it was like to be the bad dog, worst enemy. Maybe he will be a little happy that Jade does not entirely hate him, despite everything he’s done, despite everything he never repented for and doesn’t want to repent for, and it will be enough for him that she is alive. Even though he really wanted to stab her brother one more time, for old time’s sake.

 

     Speaking of her brother, John is calling out for Jade as he and Davepeta traverse the Isle of Scales.

     She said she was close by when she finally texted back twenty minutes ago, and he feels a little silly for calling an omnipotent goddess with the ability to teleport at will, but nonetheless he needs something to fill the silence. He and Cat Dave have had an eventful hike of their own, and John has had it up to his ears with cat puns and confusing double entendres. He would like very much to pass them off to Jade, who seems to have a better handle on how to deal with them. Finally, blessedly, miraculously, after what feels like eons, John spies Jade through the trees. Her hair looks damp, and she walks with her undershirt and socks folded over her satchel to dry, her shoes held in one hand.

     “Finally!” he shouts. They exchange a wave, and Davepeta drifts over to her to fly in lazy circles. “We thought you’d been eaten by a giant sloth or something.”
     “No, nothing like that,” Jade laughs. “I’m sorry, I had no idea how quickly time had passed!”
     Davepeta picks at her coils of wet hair. “What gives? Why are mew all wet?”
     “I found a waterfall!”
     “A pawterfall!” Davepeta cries. “Oh, I wanna see! I wanna wet my feathers. They’re gettin’ mighty greasy.”
     “Dude, gross,” John groans.
     “Call me Old Greasywings. Feel my wings John. Feel ‘em!” Davepeta cackles, fluttering their feathers in his face. John squawks and swats them away. “Show me the pawterfall, Harley! Show me show me show me show m–”
     “All right, all right, I never say I wouldn’t!”

     As they return to the scene of the crime, John and Davepeta recount their adventure to Jade, who is happy this time to simply relax and listen. She trails behind them as they recount a village of turtlefolk with a single human living among them, who spoke as an interpreter for the both of them. John describes using his windy powers to fight off a wolfhound that had been terrorizing the villagers, and how Davepeta taught the turtles how to do the Dougie.

     “You shouldn’t be using your powers like that, John,” Jade scolds, “you’ll make us move centuries again.”
     “Aw, Jade, no one lives out here! No one will ever know.”
     “Yeah Jadey we just did a lil cawltural exchange s’all, and it ain’t like we’re gonna stick with this era anyways. You know how quick efurrybody is to throw in the towel and jump furward at the slightest incawnvenience.”
     “I wish we wouldn’t skip so much,” sighs Jade. “I just want to live somewhere semi-permanent for once.”
     “It feels like we’re couch-surfing,” John agrees. “I didn’t know you were so eager to settle, though.”
     “Don’t say it like that!” she replies, smacking his arm. “You’re making me sound desperate.”
     “I don’t mean it in a bad way! I mean, I think it probably suits you.”
     “You do?”
     He rubs his chin. “Yeah, I think so. You had to take care of a giant house all by yourself, after all. You’d have a much easier time of it now.”
     Jade considers this. “I don’t know about that….”
     “You could even get a fancy job as like, a scientist or a gardener or something. ‘Get that bread,’ as the kids say.”
     “Oh, she could get bred all the time if she wanted to,” Davepeta snickers.
     John tilts his head. “I don’t get it. Why is that funny?”

     John and Davepeta continue to harangue each other, and Jade’s focus wanders back to the trees. The waterfall isn’t far off now, and if she looks hard enough, she can start to see the spots where she beat back the ivy in her pursuit of Jack. A lingering smell of hoverboard exhaust reaches her nose. She exhales.

     No, Jade Harley will not see Jack Noir again after today. Their group will travel in time again, to another era and another place, and Jade will not go hunting after him this time. She wants to keep the picture of how he is right now – quieter, a little calmer, still kinda stabby, but doing minimal harm. A smidge more humble, tending to his green fire. And for reasons that Jade does not understand herself, she will not mention her meeting with Jack to anyone. Not John, who would immediately seek him out for patricidal revenge. Nor to Rose, who had her own chance at vengeance with Jack, and would have all sorts of nosy, Seer-like advice as to how to handle an ex-antagonist.

     So she tucks this memory away for herself alone, and if – one day – this day becomes a legend, passed on by runaway lackeys or stray turtlefolk, Jade will be able to shrug her shoulders and smile. You know how fables always blow things out of proportion.

Chapter Text

The following tale was compiled from oral records kept by the Cult of the Witch. It was originally transcribed and summarized by the Symposium in 4178 during a joint effort to solidify a written history of the Witch and her worshipers. It is one of the more well-known tales that the Cult has to offer due to its relative levity compared to other fables of the Witch’s wrath.

 

     On one summer’s eve, when the sun had nearly reached its arc across the sky, it so happened that the Witch of Space came across a well in the ground, right beside a craggy rock face. Her hunting party had ridden for most of the day, and now they were in need of a cool place to rest. Much time had passed since the Witch last saw a stream or a river, so the well would simply have to do. The Witch bade her party to begin the skinning and gutting of the many animals that fell to their arrows, and as they did so she would provide a comfort to her weary companions.

     Reaching deep within the power of the Sun, the Witch seized the soil and uprooted it, and her devotees were surprised to see that a massive chunk of the grove was now vanished. So too was the face of the craggy rock, and what was left was the water that rushed forward from underground. The well had now become a magnificent waterfall, and the Witch’s troupe was now free to wash and drink and prepare boiling water for the evening’s feast. This was all well and good, as the Witch and her hunters had suffered a long day in the summer heat, and were ready to settle for the night. 

     As a few of the Witch’s party began to stretch the pelts of their fallen prey, others began to cook over the blazing emerald fire that the Witch had stoked. Others still, the new recruits with fresh faces, worshipers who had not yet shed blood for the Witch, were made to set up camp for the night. The vanguard of her hunters, the most loyal, who had seen many battles and were clad in the furs and the skeletons of their opponents, were the first to join the Witch within the Waterfall. For the Witch had already shed her armor, her furs, her silver and her cloaks, and was now much enjoying the cool water that sprung from underground.

     So busy was the Witch’s troupe in preparing for the revelry of the evening that they were quite unaware of a shadowy figure peering through the trees. He was a hungry woodsman, without home nor family nor livestock, and had spied the Witch hunting with her worshipers when the sun was still high. He saw how mighty they were with their weapons, how nature yielded to them easily, and knew that he could swipe a good meal from these women if he was fast enough. Unfortunate for him, then, that he did not realize the identity of the hunting party’s leader, for her wild black hair and pointed ears of the Devilbeast were kept beneath a silver-threaded hood, which shielded her face with shadow. He did not suspect that he was encroaching on the territory of an Originator. Thus he treaded forward foolishly, oblivious of the grave danger in which he was placing himself.

     The woodsman crept forward through the underbrush, staying low to the ground, where the dark shades of his dirty cloak might mask him from the many women who were busy with much hard work. Presently he noticed the rushing sound of water from the rock face, and the mist of spraying droplets as a babbling waterfall surged forth. The woodsman thought this strange – he spent many a year in this forest and had never known there to be a waterfall. He put it out of his mind and elected to use the waterfall to his advantage, as its rising mists and the splashing of its water might serve to distract the woman from his presence.

     Meanwhile, the resting Witch already allowed her guard to fall, as she was surrounded by good company, clean water, the cool approach of evening, and the smell of roasting meat as her hunters set up the spits for dinner. At the same time her warriors scrubbed off the dirt and grime of the day, the Witch untied her braids and combed her fingers through her hair, washing away the sweat and flecks of blood in its strands. Then she carefully cleaned the white fur of her Beast’s ears, and because she was so distracted with this task she neither sensed nor heard the approach of an interloper in the brush. 

     The burbling of the waterfall did well to mask his footfalls, but when the woodsman encroached upon the grove, he was stricken by what he saw. His eyes fell upon the very face of an Originator herself, fearsome as she was elegant, sharp of jaw and strong of arm, with viridian eyes and skin speckled with the many silver flecks of the stars she once conquered. The ears of the Devilbeast cleaved into the falling darkness like blades of ivory, stark against her long, onyx hair. So astounded was he to have seen the Witch of Space in the flesh that the woodsman lost all sense of secrecy. He staggered backward, where his boot crunched loudly in the rubble left over from the waterfall’s creation. The sound of his stumbling alerted the huntresses, who drew their blades and bared their teeth at the outsider. But the first to hear him was the Witch, whose keen ears sensed him the moment his heel met the ground.

     Incensed, the Witch rose from the water in a blaze of emerald steam. The heat of the Sun boiled the water with the force of her fury, and her warriors in the water leapt from the pool to escape its scorching. Her black hair whipped about her as she pointed an accusatory finger at the woodsman.

–  A stranger in our midst! cried the Witch. A black robe settled upon her, deep as night and threaded with chartreuse and silver. Who dares to cast a corrupted gaze upon the Witch of Space?

–  Not I, Madam Witch, squeaked the woodsman, who had no choice but to fall to his feet in repentance. Only a simple countryfolk of the wood, who by chance caught sight of your hunting party and wished to procure a bit of food.

–  A miscreant and a thief! the Witch hissed. 

     Her troupe howled with rage on behalf of their Witch, raising their weapons in righteous wrath. The Witch lifted her hand to cease their tumult, and a silence fell over them.

A man who spies upon the Witch of Space is nothing more than a common cur, she growled, and a common cur you shall be! Face the fate that you have earned, woodsman!

     At this, the Witch’s hand lit up with the flickering flames of the Green Sun. The woodsman opened his mouth to scream a plea for mercy, but it was lost in a pained choke as the very structure of his cells was rearranged, right down to the very last strand of his genes. His cry turned to a desperate baying, an awful yapping that filled the grove. The Witch’s hunting party was amazed to see that the woodsman had been transformed into a black hound right before their eyes.

–  You will never share a word of what you saw here, declared the Witch, nor will you return to the society of mortals.

     The black hound lashed its tail and howled with horror, as if to beg the Witch to reverse the curse she had placed upon him. But it was no use – the Witch had settled on his fate, and one cannot sway the Witch when she has set her mind to something. 

     Amidst the confusion of this confounding affair, one of the Witch’s hunters rushed forward. She was one of her favored huntresses, a young acolyte with silver hair, who wore many bands of silver and bear’s teeth ‘round her wrists. Running past the Witch, she knelt to the ground and held the black hound tight, shushing and calming him as he bayed in pain.

–  Please, Madam Witch, allow me to look after the cur, she pleaded, for I have so longed for a hunting hound of my own, and his keen nose shall assist us in the wild wood.

–  What foolishness is this? the Witch replied. The purpose of his curse, my dear, is to punish. How do you propose to give him the lavish life of a proper hunting hound?

–  Madam Witch, his very form is punishment enough. He will never breathe a word of what he saw on this eve, nor can he ever join his family again. Allow him to join our party, where you may keep a close eye upon him and remind him why he takes such a form.

     When the black hound heard her words, he was humbled by the sadness that washed over him. Indeed, he had no family nor home to miss him, and not a single companion to speak of how he had looked upon the Witch. But now there would never be a chance for him to share a word with another soul, and there was no guarantee that even with years of penance, the Witch might be able to restore him to his former self. As he thought of the long and lonesome life ahead of him, the black hound ceased his barking and began to whine. The silver-haired hunter buried her face against his fur. 

–  Listen to his cries, Madam Witch, and have pity! If not for the cur, then for me, who has wished for a hound for many moons. He will keep clear of your path, and do more good for us than harm. 

     The Witch considered this, as the silver-haired acolyte seldom asked for a single favor. It was true there was no telling what the black hound could do if it was set loose upon the woods. Though the Witch was quick to punish those who committed sacrilege against her, she was loathe to cause injury to the innocents of the Four Spheres. If the beast she created was to run off into the dark forest, to bite and to maim those who dwelled in the trees –  why, what a terrible thought! The Witch decided that it would be best for the hound to stay where someone could watch over him. She nodded, and her young acolyte rejoiced. 

 

     And so it was that the Witch’s hunting party gained a single member that eve. That night, the hunters of Space dined on stag and rabbit, boar and pheasant, and the black hound enjoyed many table scraps given to him by the huntresses. At the head of the table, the Witch raised her silver goblet and gave her blessing to the cur, who was quite content to chew on the bones of the day’s prey. Though he had taken another form, the black hound had nonetheless achieved what he so desired – a hearty meal, and a warm fire, and a family with which to enjoy it all. The silver-haired acolyte fitted him with a collar of pearls and teeth, granting him a gentle pet on the head, and the hound was happy, for in his curse he found a bit of hope.

     Thus the hound passed many moons under the Witch’s dominion. He proved himself a keen and stealthy dog, with a sharp nose and sharper claws, and at the end of each hunt he was rewarded with much praise and adulation. Those who bore witness to the Witch’s Wild Hunt were amazed at the hound’s speed, and in honor of the Witch there was established a Race of Beasts, wherein the fastest runners among both man and dog were selected from the Isle of Scales. Along the beach of the isle they would race, with the winning party sitting at the head of the table for the evening’s communal feasting. And at the end of this evening, the people of this isle return to the Waterfall that the Witch created, which today has been given the name of The Witch's Pool. Here, there stands a statue of the cur, and devotees of the Witch decorate its neck with garlands and silver. In this way, the people of this island pay their respects to the Witch of Space, and remember the black hound to whom she graced with mercy. 




 

The end.

Chapter Text

     The year 4252 is not as different as Jane Crocker expects it to be.

 

 

     There is something about a new millennium that sounds like it should be filled with promise, that things should be newer and better, painted over with a layer of chrome and silver. Welcome to the world of tomorrow! shouts the welcome committee, a robot that looks like a toaster and a man wrapped in a spacesuit of tin foil. But of course there is no welcome committee, and things are not very different from the last time they were here. Jane must remind herself periodically that many of the sentient peoples who populate this world can live up to several hundred years, well over a thousand sometimes. Even the humans here are remarkably well taken care of – Jane had a conversation at a bus stop today with a man who told her his one hundred and thirtieth birthday was coming up. He waggled his metal leg at her and told her that the secret to longevity was to eat a lot of almonds. Point being, there must be something about living for ages that makes progress slow down a little bit. If you know you’ll live to be over eight hundred and you like the way things are, there isn’t a huge incentive to overhaul the way things work. 

     Jane thinks she can respect that mentality. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

     Still, though, Earth C has been a hard adjustment for Jane. She tries to take her cues from her father, who takes everything in stride and with good humor. Mr. Crocker has not had a single issue in any of the eras into which they’ve intruded. He grabs the newspaper each morning and reads it cover to cover. He finds a coffee shop he likes and develops a rapport with the folks who work there. He learns how to cook a local dish. If he has time, he discovers a book club and tries to read what he can before some teenaged catastrophe forces him to uproot his life again. This is all an extended vacation to him. Try to relax, Janey, he tells her with an affectionate squeeze of the shoulder. Your friends are enjoying themselves, why don’t you try to let loose while you have the chance? 

     Easier said than done.

     Right now, Jane Crocker is glumly lighting a votive candle beneath her own likeness. It’s abstract and symbolic, riddled with sharp angles, broad brush strokes, and symbolism she doesn’t think she understands. In a halo of white light, the three-faced Maid extends a motherly hand to the weak and the destitute. The blue candle lights up with a little flickering flame, and Jane extinguishes the long matchstick in a tray of ashes. The smell that lingers is warm and inviting. She drops a coin in the donation box and shuffles back to her pew.

     Derspit-Upon-Yale is a largely Carapacian settlement that straddles a shallow river valley, held aloft with massive beams and copper chains. Like one big suspension bridge, parts of the city are paved with glass, allowing one to look down at the water below. Doing so makes Jane nauseous, though, so she doesn’t. Gothic buildings are cobbled together with alternating bricks of rough, faded lavender and yellow sandstone. Carapaced feet clack on the cobblestone, down twisting alleyway staircases that have developed grooves over time from so much use. There’s the occasional non-Carapacian here and there – a group of teenaged trolls taking pictures of their food outside a cafe, a human couple who have stopped to allow a Prospitian to pet their dog. So Jane isn’t a total black sheep here, neither her nor her two elderly counterparts.

     It is hard to travel unnoticed when you’re a sprite. Others have had better luck blending in – there’s Jade with the scarf she ties over her canine ears, the strange cat-faced Dave who simply tells curious children that they’re covered in body modifications – but it’s more of a challenge when everything below your torso is a transparent wisp of blue curlicues. The Two Nannasprites don’t let this disadvantage hold them back. They’re determined to explore this new world one way or another, even if it means dressing up in disguise like kids stacked atop one another in a trench coat. 

     Jane slides back into her pew, right between the two Nannas. They’re dressed like twins – both wear delicate, lacey gloves over their singular arms. Crocheted shawls wrap around their shoulders, and if Jane looks very closely at the hem of their long, linen skirts, she can just barely notice the twitching of a sprite tail underneath. Both of them have removed their sun hats, and Nanna One combs her fingers through her disheveled white hair. Nanna Two adjusts her eyeglass chains and flips one-handed through a book of psalms.

     “Do you think we should skedaddle before the afternoon service starts ?” Nanna One whispers.
     Nanna Two waves dismissively. “What are you in such a hurry for, Jane? We’ve plenty of time.
     “She wants to go to the tea shop and talk to the cute store clerk again,” Jane whispers.
     Nanna One suppresses her laughter and swats Jane on the arm.

     The chapel is dark and smokey with the smell of burning candles and leftover incense. The few other worshipers are scattered throughout the pews, hanging their heads in silent meditation. Jane suspects that at least a couple of them are actually asleep. Stained glass windows cast blotchy colors across the shining tiles, which tremble and change hue from the passing clouds outside. She gazes upward to look at the scenes in each tall window – a Dersite man cloaked in golden ribbons, a boy who is probably supposed to be John holding a sapphire apple. Every slight sound echoes into the arched ceiling. Jane leans back and props her feet on the cushioned kneelers.

     “What say you, Jane the Younger?” asked Nanna Two. 
     “I don’t much mind either way,” she responds, “we can go wherever you prefer.
     “Ah-ah-ah, this is your day, little Jane,” scolds Nanna One, waggling a dainty finger in her face. “Your wish is our command.

     Jane thinks about it. Lately –  well, from the beginning – she’s been feeling like that one kid on the field trip who won’t stop pissing and moaning about how their feet hurt and everything is lame and they just want to go home already. But she doesn’t have a home, not a permanent one anyway, and everyone else is having so much fun. Jane would like very much to enjoy herself, to slough off the dead weight of an even deader civilization she will never be a part of again. This world is like a fantasy land, like a Studio Ghibli movie brought to life – Jake’s words, not Jane’s – and yet… nothing seems like much fun. She can’t think of anything she wants to do other than lie down and sleep.

     “I guess… I guess we could go to the library ?” Jane suggests, trying very hard to muster an aura of enthusiasm.
     “Our leader has spoken,” Nanna One declares.

     She pats Jane on the shoulder and rises from her seat, and the three of them are about to sidle out of their pew when there comes a great raucousness from above. The other worshipers are roused to attention as the sound of loud, echoing footsteps clack-clack-clacks down the stairwell behind the altar. The figure that emerges is a Prospitian who looks quite frazzled. They’re dressed in a golden damask alb, and their tassled stole is askew on their shoulders. They pause at the end of the stairs to take a deep breath, then cry out with a cracking voice.

     “This house of worship is closed for the neartimes and the rest of the day!” they squawk.
     “Whatever for?” Nanna Two asks, ever nosy.
     “A hundred pardons, sister, but this is a sensitive matter, and all laypeoples must escort themselves out for reasonings of their own safety!” the clergyman responds. “Scoot, scoot, all of you now!”

     Slowly and cautiously, everyone rises from their pews and leaves through the tall front doors. The sound of carriage wheels and laughter from the street seeps in, and a bright column of daylight stretches above the altar.

     “Including you, my three sisters!” the clergyman insists. They make a shooing motion at Jane and the Nannasprites.
     “Now, isn’t that a rude way to address a lady!” Nanna Two huffs indignantly.
     “I’ll say, Jane! Now, what blue blazes has you in such a tizzy?” asks Nanna One. “Surely it’s nothing a bit of nonagenarian wit and wisdom couldn’t mend?”
     “I’m afraid it isn’t, most honorable of sisters,” the clergyman says. They take a handkerchief from their sleeve and wipe their forehead. Jane was unaware until now that Carapacians could sweat. “There has been a most grievous crime committed in this holy of houses.”
     “A crime!” Jane cries. “In a chapel?”
     “Your shock is natural and well-deserved, little sister,” the clergyman says, wringing their doll-jointed hands. “Which is why you must allow us to inform the crisis intervention team, and prevent another heinous murder from taking place on sacred land!”
     “Murder ?” the Nannas shout at once.
     “Murder! Murder most foul! Oh, my stomach is all in a gut-twist,” they moan. “Now you must know that it is quite unsafe for you to remain here, so please , escort yourselves to the out-of-doors!”

     Something sparks in Jane at this moment. It’s the most excited she’s felt in weeks – perhaps due to the adrenaline that comes with knowing that a murderer is in your midst. It’s all very Agatha Christie. She wants to be of some use, somehow. She wants to help. Feeling brave all of a sudden, a gutsy gumshoe steps forward.

     “Let us help you,” Jane says.
     “Excuse me?” the clergyman gawks. “Are the three of you intervention facilitators?”
     “We don’t even know what that means!” Nanna One hoots.
     “If there’s a murder, there’s a murder mystery,” Jane presses. “Someone here is dangerous, and everyone’s a suspect.”
     “Everyone?” Nanna Two asks.
     “Everyone!” shouts Jane. “Please, we aren’t asking you not to call the police, but let us provide some assistance. I’m something of a sleuth myself.”
     “A sleuth… a… p– what was that word you used? Po- lease? Little sister, this is no place for–”
     “Please!”

     The clergyman straightens up. It’s hard to say what they see in Jane’s eyes at this moment. Perhaps the blue blaze of determination, of icy calculation, of chilling intellect. Or maybe she’s just clenching her fist very hard, biting her bottom lip like she’ll chew it off entirely. Whatever it is, they sigh and shake their head. The Prospitian stands aside and sweeps their arm back to beckon the three ladies up the stairwell.

     “Satisfy your curiosity quickly, my friends,” they sigh, “I have many arrangements to be making.”

 

 

     Above the chapel, everything is whitewashed and clean. The windows are accented with criss-crosses of metal latticework, and through the glass Jane can see all the warbling shapes outside, all the moving crowds and bustling shopkeepers and motorbikes weaving around pedestrians in the thoroughfare. She scrunches her eyebrows and rubs her chin in a I-am-thinking-about-this-quite-seriously way as the clergyman describes what they are about to see.

     They pause outside an arched doorway shaped like a gumdrop, labeled Bishop’s Chamber on a silver plaque. Their hand trembles above the doorknob.

     “Sister, I warn you now that this is a sight most gruesome, unbefit for maiden’s eyes.”
     “Good thing we aren’t maidens,” snorts Nanna One. She places her hand on her hip. “Like our apprentice told you – we’re professionals!”
     “Yes… professional, what was it now?”
     “Gumshoes!” Jane says, smacking her palm with her fist. “Mysteries and clues and whodunits are our whole gambit. Trust me, I’ve seen way worse.”
     “Ditto to that!” the Nannas say in unison.
     “Very well, gum-maidens,” the clergyman mumbles. “This is the scene of the crime. After you, I suppose.”

     The office inside the door smells like oak and paper. A metronome sits on a shining wooden desk, its steady ticking the only noise. Bookshelves are lined with rows of volumes, all uniform and stamped with gold. Jane notes all the finer details that mark the Bishop’s personality – antique globes, a half-withered vase of daisies, a coat rack with a heavy, red coat on it. She doesn’t see the body at first. Her eyes drift to the bottom of the table, with its legs carved like lion’s feet, and sees the top of his head, his curled fingers resting beside his face. 

     The late Bishop is a Dersite dressed smartly in a black suit, a simple magenta stole draping his shoulders. He lies on the floor, neatly collapsed, almost arranged on the spot. There is no sign of outward trauma, and not a significant amount of blood, either. Jane crouches down beside him the way she has seen many detectives do in TV shows, and she wishes very much that she had a pipe and a deerstalker right now. Careful not to contaminate the body with her DNA, she leans close and examines his face. The Bishop’s mouth is open, and a smear of blood marks his nubby teeth. The collar of his suit is disheveled. Jane wonders if someone used it to seize him. Still, though, there are no signs of a struggle. Everything in the office remains in its spot.

     “Who in the chapel might have had access to this office?” Jane asks.
     “It is only myself, Miss Gum, and the choirfolk due for the afternoon servicetimes. Now and again one arrives a spot early, but not so today.”
     “Did the late Bishop have any enemies?” Nanna One asks. Jane sees that she’s materialized a spiral notebook in her hand, which she’s now using to scribble notes.
     “A member of the clergy, have enemies?” they scoff. “I’ve never heard of such a silly notion. Much less regarding our Bishop! His Bishopship was beloved by all, genteel and kind… oh!”

     At this, they take a moment to collect themself. The clergyman wipes their tears with the end of their stole.

     “There, there,” Nanna Two coos. She strokes the clergyman on the arm. “This must be hard for you. You let it all out, dear.”
     Jane stands and brushes her skirt off, backing away from the Bishop’s body. “Right off the bat, I can tell you with certainty that our murderer is a sneaky one. Not a sign of a struggle here, nor a clear source of trauma. It doesn’t appear as though he was struck with a foreign object, nor done in through more macabre means.”

     She slides her finger across her throat, and everyone in the office gulps.

     “If we can’t determine a suspect, then we need to examine the scene for clues,” Jane says. “Four of us should cover plenty of ground. We’ll have this case cracked in no time!”
     The clergyman starts to raise their hand. “Er….”
     “Yes, yes, you have to call the police. Do what you have to do, and let the ladies handle it!”
     “Nary a stone will be left unturned!” the Nannas agree.

     With that, the nervous clergyman – which would make a good name for them, Jane’s decided – gathers themself and scuttles out into the hall to reach a telephone. Jane is left with two elderly paradox clones and a dead body.

     Any plucky, teenaged sleuth worth their salt has a comically-sized magnifying glass and disposable gloves on them at all times. Jane whips them from her sylladex and sets to work searching for hints, taking care to step delicately over the Bishop’s cadaver. She cracks open desk drawers, shuffling through books and pamphlets and old newspapers. She flips through his desk calendar, which is marked with nothing but service times, weddings, and festival dates. She pages through the chapel’s visitor’s log, then realizes it’s an old one from the previous year. The Nannas glide over and under each other with acrobatic ease. They peer into latched boxed with gilded edges. They overturn statues to look at their bases. They pull random books from the shelves, trying to activate a secret passageway. This gives Jane an idea, and she starts stomping on different floor tiles in the hope that one will sink, unveiling the hidden stairwell through which the killer escaped. But no such luck. Nothing under the desk, nor the rugs, nor anything.

     Eventually, the clergyman returns with their stole and alb removed. Now they’re dressed in a simple, undecorated black robe. They inquire incredulously about the progress of their investigation.

     Jane is determined not to sound like she’s been wasting everyone’s time. “Nothing out of the ordinary, so far.”
     “Except for the fact that he is dead.”
     “Except… for that, yes.” Jane blushes and coughs. “I only meant, there’s nothing that indicates someone was ever in here, or planned to be. Are you certain that someone could have slipped in to commit such a crime?”
     “I’m certain!” they cry. “I’m certain, for I heard him speaking to someone through the door!”
     “Why, now that’s a game changer,” Nanna Two clucks. “What did the fellow sound like?”
     “He sounded like… he sounded….” The clergyman rubs their chin. “It was hard to tell, you see, through the heavy wood. And it is a disvirtue to be an eavesdropper, thus I did not hang about the door.” Then they clasp their face in their hands. “Oh, may the Four strike me down, if I had dropped eaves, I might have known who the perpetrator was!”
     “There, there,” Nanna One coos, “get it all out of your system.”
     “We can’t give up now,” Jane says. “We should skip forward to cross examination, starting with our only other witness. Could you tell us what the Bishop tends to do around this time of day? Was it normal for him to be in his office?”
     “Me? He – well, yes, this is about the time he takes to his office for a cider and his pill.”
     “His pill for what? Is it dangerous to overdose on?”
     “No, no, it’s a pill for the jointlock in his knee. At times he needed a cane to be of assisting.” The clergyman gestures to a cane resting by the door. “There, you can see it on his writing table. His pill bag and his cider, still cold.”

     It’s true. Jane turns the glass carefully in her gloved hand, and yes, there’s a smudge on the lip from the first and only drink he took. The “pill bag” is a regular pill bottle kept inside of a drawstring bag. The bottle is still mostly full – the printed date on the label says it was refilled at Cornerbrook Transept Chemist’s four days ago. So he didn’t take too many after all.

     “What about the meal he left here?” Jane points to a sandwich resting on a sheet of brown paper. Only a bite has been taken. “Is this typical too?”
     “Oh, yes, you mustn’t take jointlock medicines without a spot of food,” the clergyman nods. “He gets the same order each afternoon, you see, because he’s so particu–  oh!”

     They pause to take a big breath. Nanna One offers them a tissue. Wiping their beady eyes, the Prospitian clears their throat.
     “My pardons, little sister. Yes, His Bishopship partakes – partook – of the same meal each day. There is a delivery biker he was quite fond of who brings it up from Crocker’s, thought of him as a little brother, almost… they had quite a rapport.”
     “Crocker’s?” Jane asks, thrown off.
     “Crocker’s, yes, a deli down the thoroughfare, at the East End. Katrina Crocker owns it, a kind old human woman – ah, does this have anything to do with the investigation?”
     Jane shakes her head. “No, I… well, yes, actually. If the Bishop’s food has scarcely been touched, doesn’t it stand to reason that the delivery boy was here recently?”
     The clergyman taps their finger against their jaw, making a click-clack-click sound. “Yes, I suppose, but he never stays long. Sometimes His Bishopship would order in advance, though, and keep his lunchmeal on ice til the break between services.”
     “There’s only one way to find out,” Nanna Two notes. The hint of her sprite tail can be seen wagging beneath the hem of her skirt. “Janey, dear, you should check the receipt.”
     “Of course,” Jane exclaims, smacking her forehead with her palm.

     The paper bag is crinkled and soggy at the bottom, marked with the Crocker’s logo – the white outline of a breadloaf, steam rising from it in curvy lines. Reaching in delicately with her hand still gloved, Jane extracts a wet receipt that wants to stick to the inside of the bag. The paper is fragile like this, but Jane can still read it. The date is marked two hours prior.

     “No dice.” Jane pushes her glasses up her nose. “The delivery biker’s a dead end – he dropped this off some time ago.”

     The clergyman heaves a discouraged sigh, and Jane places the receipt back in the bag. As she does so, her sleeve bumps into the partially eaten sandwich. The top piece of sesame bread flops off and lands with a splat on the table. Jane curses.

     “Oh, shoot. Well, no use crying over spilled bread,” she huffs, “it’s not as if it will make a difference in the end.”
     “Wait! Don’t touch it, little sister, I’ve something to study!”

     The Prospitian shuffles forward and leans close to the writing table, eyeing the sandwich carefully. They dip their fingertip into a smear of dark, purplish substance. It has a consistency like jam, but smells sharp and bitter. The clergyman smacks their tongue and looks up, as bewildered as a creature with limited facial muscles can appear.

     “Why, this is buckroot butter!” they cry. “His Bishopship is deathly allergic!”
     “Deathly allergic?” the Nannas ask together.
     “Deathly allergic! A mere taste of it could choke him dead!”

     They hang their head in their hands, weeping quite pitifully. Jane pats them robotically on the arm, the effect of which falls flat compared to the Nannas’ matronly reassurance.

     “Did His Bishopship not carry an EpiPen?” Jane asks.
     “An… a what now, little sister? His Bishopship was always a dawdler when it came to carrying a fresh antidote on his person. ‘I know what buckroot looks and smells like, so of course I will be able to avoid it,’ he said. Pah! I told him to renew it, I did, I did!” They stomp on the floor hard.
     “Now, take a breath, dear, you aren’t his keeper, after all,” Nanna One clucks.
     “I am though! That’s my name! Clergical Keeper! The welfare of all in our chapel falls on my shoulders!”

     The Keeper begins to weep once more. Jane and her doppelgangers exchange confused looks.

     “If it is the butter what’s done in our poor Bishop, you will be able to tell right quick,” the Keeper sniffles. They point to the body. “Buckroot poisoning takes its toll swifter than you can say ‘tabernacle.’ His tongue will be bloated.”
     “You – you want me to check?” Jane blusters.
     “Is that not the duty of a gumshoe?” the Keeper blubbers. “Please, before the intervention team carts him away, and I cannot bear to do so myself. An act of kindness for a poor Keeper, little sister.”
     “I – I –” Jane gulps. “I suppose it isn’t out of the question.”

     Jane stoops by the Bishop’s body with her nose turned up. She has been avoiding looking at him in the face for some time now, but now it’s unavoidable. Rank, smelly death stares at her and waits for her to blink first. Jane hates the sight of blood, even the smear of it across his mouth. She feels woozy as she changes her gloves and goes to open up his segmented jaw. The Bishop’s carapace is hard and shiny, with a texture like a granite countertop. Her fingers tremble, terrified of the cold sensation that travels up her hands with her gloved fingers touch the wet insides of his mouth. Jane has never fainted from nerves before, because she is pretty sure that only happens to women in Regency-era novels and Jake English. But today is a day of firsts. She’s never handled a dead Carapacian, either – passing out is not out of the question.

     It’s as she’s pulling back his stiff tongue that Jane squeezes her eyes shut. She really can’t do this. She can’t be a detective. What’s a sleuth who can’t handle a cold body? How can you seek justice for victims when you can’t even look at the victim without gagging?

     Jane sniffles. A single, angry teardrop hits the inside of her glasses before she can wipe her eyes.

     “Janey, love, are you all right?” Nanna Two asks gently.
     “No!” she shouts. “No! What am I doing? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, have I literally gone insane?”
     Nanna One rubs her neck. “Um, Jane–”
     “Why am I doing this? Why are we involving ourselves with this? I honestly couldn’t tell you why! I really don’t understand the series of misfiring synapses that caused me to conclude that this would be fun!”
     “Fun?” the Keeper asks, their mouth slacking open.
     “And it’s not! Holy crap, it really is not!”
     Nanna Two inhales. “Jane–”
     “May the Four have mercy on us all,” the Keeper mutters. They make some sort of religious gesticulation across their chest.
     “This is my fault. We should have never interfered. We should have never come here at all.”
     “Jane!” Nanna One warns, her voice strained.
     “What?”

     The two Nannas point down, and Jane follows their gaze. 

     Her hands are swimming in the trembling, phantasmal blue of Life. It bubbles between her fingers and rises off of her skin, leaving behind an eerie sensation like the slight wisping of an insect’s legs. Jane flings her hands away from the Bishop’s face, but they leave faint prints on his carapace. His slack-jawed, bloated face steams with shades of cyan. 

     “Oh, my,” Nanna Two clucks.
     “That’s one way to solve a murder,” says Nanna One.
     “Skaia preserve me!” the Keeper cries. They cross themself in rapidfire succession.

     Jane stumbles backward and scuttles away from the Bishop on hands and feet. The blue haze slips over his corpse, wisping and whispering, and a twitch shudders through his fingers, his arms, his torso – it’s as if there are hands underneath him, trying to lift him up but finding him quite heavy. Then the momentum ceases and he plops to the floor ahead. The back of his head hits the hardwood with a clack, and everyone in the room shrieks when the Bishop sits up straight.

     “Heir, Seer, Knight and Witch, what on Earth?” he curses. The Bishop rubs the back of his head, wincing. He speaks with a slur to his voice – his tongue is still a bit bloated.
     “Your Bishopship! ” the Keeper yells. They lunge forward and clasp the Bishop to their chest, weeping violently. Their tears roll off of the Dersite’s shiny head. “Oh, your Bishopship, you were dead! Departed from this world! Your carapace but a husk!”
     The Bishop looks around at all the strange faces in his office. “Was I?”
     “Your Keeper tells us you’re devilishly allergic to buckroot,” Nanna One says.
     “Buckroot? Well, yes….” The Bishop smacks his lips. “Now, doesn’t my mouth feel funny.”
     “Your lunch from Crocker’s, your Bishopship, it had buckroot butter on it! That biker of yours was trying to poison you!”
     “Poison? I don’t know about that, my Keeper.” The Bishop allows them to help him to his feet, and he takes a seat at his desk. “Ah, it’s coming back to me now. I decided to switch up my regular order today! I ordered it with a slice of lamb’s foot – perhaps it was hard to hear me on the phone? This chapel simply has the worst reception.”

     The Bishop adjusts his stole. He seems to be regaining his composure now, the Keeper’s outburst and his post-death experience notwithstanding. Finally, he properly acknowledges the three Maids before him.

     “These must be the intervention team you called. I thank you for your attendance, my children.
     “We aren’t–”
     “These are no intervention facilitators!” the Keeper cries. The full weight of what they just witnessed crashes down on them like a ton of bricks. “In fact, those stragglers haven’t even shown up yet! This little sister brought you back to life!
     The Bishop blinks. He looks at Jane with his head cocked. “Did you?”
     Before Jane can stutter a reply, the Keeper continues. “Oh, my beating heart! Oh, Skaia above us, there is an Originator in our midst!” They fall to the floor, their chest heaving. “We’ve been touched by the Maid’s divine light! Have mercy! Mercy on us mortals!”

     With this, the Keeper falls forward and begins to genuflect. The Bishop is still not sure what to make of this affair. He gives a bewildered look to the three of them. Jane is horrified. The Nannas are grinning ear to ear with delight.

     “We should be leaving,” Jane blurts. She stands and staggers backward. “Um, thank you for your time, and, um, hospitality!”
     “Wait! Stay a little longer, if you will have the company of your undeserving children!” the Keeper replies. “There are so many questions, so little time, do you–”
     The Bishop stays them with a touch of his hand. He gives a warm smile to Jane. “My friend is a devout follower, as you’ve noticed. I must thank you sincerely, Maid, for what you’ve done. I am but a speck of a speck in this grand universe of your devising. Whatever I may have done to inspire you to show pity on my soul, I thank you. I will not soon forget this day.”
     “It’s nothing, really, just, you… seem like you have more work to do.”
     “I think you must be right. But now I have a lunch entirely unfit for my consumption, and it is a sin to lay waste to good food. If you will take your leave of us, at least take a meal along for your journey.”

     Jane looks to the Nannas, who give her an encouraging nod. She offers the Bishop a polite smile.

     “I think I’ll take you up on your offer, your Bishopship,” she says. “I’ve never had buckroot before.”
     “I cannot say I recommend it,” he laughs. “Whenever I eat it, I have the strangest habit of dying.”



     Jane and her two blue shadows escape the chapel through the back stairwell, and the Keeper can still be heard singing their praises even when they’re long out of sight. The warbling siren of an intervention vehicle resounds through the street as they scamper away. The Keeper will have some explaining to do for reporting a murder, but at least the Bishop will receive the proper medical treatment he needs. Today will wrap up nicely and neatly for everyone but the Originators, least of all Jane Crocker, who is absolutely burning with embarrassment.

     “You did a good thing back there, little Jane,” Nanna One says. She thumps Jane on the back.
     “I feel like all I did was make an ass of myself.”
     “That too!” Nanna Two hoots. “There are more foolish ways to get yourself kicked out of an entire era, however, and of them all, I think yours is the most noble!”
     “I must agree, Jane. Let any of your friends try to beat that!”
     “Please, just let me suffer my shame in silence,” Jane moans. “Do I have to be the one to break it to them that I messed up?”
     “Naturally, Jane. But what a fantastic story it will be!”

     And it really will be. Many people who do an act of good for another person call it their “good deed for the day.” Jane Crocker has a good deed for the century. For several news cycles, all anyone can talk about is the Bishop whom the Maid returned to the realm of the living. They will try to track the Maid down, to follow her tracks, to search her out, but she will be long gone. All that will be left is a few coins in a donation box, the wrapper for a buckroot butter sandwich, and a Bishop who is grateful to be alive.

Chapter Text

The following tale is believed by some to have occurred in the Medium before the terrareformation of our world. Today, it is a folktale accredited as native to Derspit-upon-Yale. The oldest version of this tale may be found in its original written form at Rook Registry in Bishop’s Fort.

 

     Long before this world was formed, before there was a Meteor and before the two moons rose and sank across the sky, there was a golden satellite bathed in Skaialight named Prospit. It wisped across the dreamy clouds of Skaia and traced the Battlefield’s silhouette in its daily orbit, and in the springtime, the moon basked in warm, brilliant rays of gilded light. It came to be on the brightest day of spring that the Maid of Life rode down into the heart of Prospit, her retinue in tow. For on this day, it was tradition for the Maid to pay a visit to her devotees. Many Carapacians would be awaiting her in the Grand Cathedral, where one lucky victor would receive the Maid’s touch of Life.

     As this was now the springtime, the Maid oft wore her first face, the face of the Maiden, which was young and bright, her face round and her mouth curved in a cheeky smile. Her other two faces were masked in the bundles of blue flowers tucked into her curled hair. They shed their petals onto her lap as her carriage bounced along the winding cobblestone streets of Prospit.

     When the Maid’s carriage arrived at the center of the moon, she found that the streets were festooned with great garlands of colorful flowers. Peonies and daffodils and bright white roses trimmed each window and every door, and when the wind blew, pink and white and blue and yellow petals fluttered across the street and got caught in the Maid’s hair. She stepped out from her carriage to the delight of her devotees, and the Maid was led into the Grand Cathedral.

     Inside there was a great celebration prepared in the Maid’s honor. Trumpets sounded, and the belltower rang its echoing song throughout the city. Before the altar, there was a line of worthy Carapacians. These were the heroes judged by the people to be deserving of her Maidship’s gift – whosoever passed the Maid’s contests would win her touch of everlasting Life and Vigor. The Maid folded her hands in careful thought and studied the faces of each hero, who all averted their eyes from her piercing stare.

–  So the flock of you are my champions, said the Maid. Her fingers brushed her cheek as she considered the sight of them. Heroes, bravesmen, figures of virtue and of righteousness. It is my hope to spread Life to the one among you who is kind and true, that you may carry the light of hope to those who come after you. Now, my fledglings, she said with a clap of her hands, who is prepared to begin the contests?

     The group of contenders nodded their confirmation, and all of the onlookers cheered. The trumpets blared once more, and the stained glass windows inside the Cathedral were awash with the sudden, bright rays of Skaialight pouring in from all sides.

–  Then let us begin! said the Maid through Maiden’s mouth.

     For the first contest, the Maid sat upon her marble throne and bade the heroes to stand before a long table, which was lined with copper trays. Each tray contained a towering pile of grain, each one small enough to fit upon a fingernail. There was one tray for each competitor, and a blank sheet of paper beside each tray. 

With youth comes courage, but with youth comes impatience, too, said the young Maid. Before you is the grain harvested by your friends on the Battlefield. They are the produce of much labor and care, and their work allows you to enjoy your youth in turn. Each of you are to count the grains before you, down to the last. The goal is not to be the quickest, but merely the most accurate. When you are finished, write the total on the paper before you. 

     The Maid sat back and waved her hand, and her retinue rang their bells to announce the beginning of the trial. Though she had told them that time was not important, the heroes rushed to be the first. The audience in the Grand Cathedral watched in dismay as they set to work counting, and before long there were Carapacians dropping grains in their hurry. They stopped to fish them out from beneath the tablecloth, now quite frightened of being in last place. But before the competition had gone on long, they realized that there were far too many to count. The competitors began to despair.

     What happened next was intriguing to the Maid. A Dersite competitor paused to speak to the person beside him, who appeared frazzled. They exchanged a few words, and eventually, the other Carapacian nodded. Then the two pushed their trays together and began to count it as a pair. The two of them made quick work of it, not because there was fewer grain between the two of them, but because their teamwork made the task less daunting. Thus the two were the first to finish, and they wrote their total together.

     The judges conferred with one another, and were surprised to find that the two Carapacians counted true. The other competitors had written incorrect answers – they were impatient, and anxious, and made sloppy work of their task. The Maid asked for the name of the Dersite who proposed the idea of teamwork to his partner.

I am the Courageous Kennelhand, and it is my honor to stand before her Maidship , said the Dersite. I have traveled across the inky black of the Medium to be present, and am humbled at the opportunity.

     The Maid was pleased with his deed, but unimpressed with his grovelling. 

     The first task concluded, the Maid placed her fingers at each side of her face. As delicately as one adjusts the ticking hands of a pocket watch, the Maid turned her face to reveal the second that had been hidden – the face of the Mother. This face was mature and elegant, with kind eyes and a smile etched with thin wrinkles. The heroes were amazed to see her transmogrified.

As the reckless freedom of youth flees the body, it is replaced in turn by wisdom and grace, Mother Maid said to the rapt audience. This next contest is a test of maturity. For if you cannot keep your head square upon your shoulders, you’ve no right to go about judging the actions of your peers.

     Mother Maid summoned a group of volunteers from the pews, whom the judges had selected before her arrival. She explained to the competitors that they would hear the blight of each volunteer in a private place where no eavesdropping ear could pry. Then, they would return to the altar to announce the solution they had devised for their volunteer. 

     Each hero departed with their partner, and after some time they emerged again in front of the altar. The Maid instructed them to declare their advice before the pulpit.

I believe your marriage is a sacred bond, said one, and if you are unsure of its strength, then the best you can do is communicate with your beloved. At times, only the power of words can heal our hearts.

–  You should not fear failure, said another, for a hundred scholars have failed before they found their place. Study hard and resist the temptation of a cheater’s tricks, and it will carry you far.

     There was murmuring among the volunteers, who were grateful for the advice but embarrassed to have the intricacies of their personal lives laid out in such an easy way to infer. A few of them blushed to be addressed in such a way. The last competitor came to the pulpit, and their volunteer prepared herself for shame.

I cannot tell you how to mend your situation, little sister, the hero said, for I know you possess a kind heart and gentle soul. You know the answer already, and should trust your own sharp intuition.

     The Maid looked on approvingly as this competitor bowed and stepped down to join their fellows. The volunteers gathered to determine a winner, and shortly they declared the last hero to be the victor. 

What is your name, little one? asked Mother Maid.
I am the Cleanly Kitchenmaid, my Maid, and it is a pleasure to compete among so many noble folk.

     The Maid was more pleased with this victor’s subtle modesty, but sensed that they were timid at heart. She wondered if this hero held much courage at the core of them, or whether they had dreamed up their answer at the pulpit for the sake of being inoffensive. She considered this all briefly, then moved on.

     At last the final contest was upon them. No single hero knew whether or not he stood a chance at being victor, and thus they were all alight with nerves. The Maid beckoned the heroes forward and placed her hands once more against her temples. She turned her face, and the one they gazed upon now was old and weary. Her hair was streaked with silver, her face heavy with the passage of many years. Maid Crone spoke with a croaking voice, quiet and dignified.

–  As the body ages and the mind matures, you will become set in your ways, as unchanging as a boulder. This is not an admirable quality – it is the same as resigning yourself to death. To become stagnant is to die a death of the spirit, the most severe death of them all.

     Maid Crone extended her hand to reveal a large, white knight behind a curtain. It snorted and dragged its hooves across the marble, and steam billowed from its nostrils. This creature had been recovered from the Battlefield, and was irritated to find itself in a place of worship.

–  Now I ask you, my heroes: will you tackle the future head on, or will you allow yourself to be carried by the listless passing of the clock?

     The judges cut the rope restraining the knight, and at once it whinnied and charged into the aisle, its powerful legs kicking up the scarlet rug. The heroes were bewildered – was tackling the knight the last contest? Most instinctively dove out of the way when the knight came close, and allowed the creature to continue its bedlam. So too did the audience duck in their pews and press themselves against the Cathedral walls, terrified of the loose beast. 

     But one Carapacian was too slow to get out of the way. They were small and fragile Prospitian, an old and battered carapace and a walking stick for support. As the rook barreled toward them, a Dersite lunged out from his hiding spot. He flung his arms to either side, shielding the elder behind him, and the knight knocked into him instead. A great gasp went up in the Cathedral. A trio of competitors snapped to their senses and wrestled the knight as a team, but it was too late for the selfless Dersite. He lied upon the floor in a heap, having been kicked very hard in the gut. He was already dead.

     The Maid threw herself from her throne and bustled down the aisle, her skirt in her hands, her retinue rushing to carry the trailing train of her dress. Maid Crone sat down beside the fallen Dersite, weeping bitter tears over his last heroic deed.

–  Who was this brave heart? she asked. 
–  Why, that is out very own Bishop! cried the members of the visiting Dersite clergy.

     She cradled the Bishop in her arms. Never had she witnessed such a noble-ranking man make a sacrifice for a lower-ranking soul. Much less a Bishop of another kingdom. He cared not for the danger, he wanted nothing in return but the safety of another. 

–  A selfless act of love from a selfless heart, Maid Crone said. His sacrifice will not be in vain. The winner of this trial is declared –  the Bishop will once again live to walk among his people.

     So she touched his chest with her withered hand, and at once the Bishop glowed with the shining blue light of Life. Once more he gasped for air, and was surprised to see a group of onlookers staring down at him. Even more so was he shocked to find himself clasped in the arms of an Originator.

–  Congratulations, my friend, the Maid said with a gentle smile. You have proven yourself worthy above all. Carry the torch of Life wherever you go, and use it to light up the lives of others.

     Thunderous applause erupted in the Cathedral, and the people rejoiced to see the courageous Bishop brought back to the realm of the living. The heroes who had competed thus far were disappointed, but they were grateful to the Bishop for saving the life of a person they had failed themselves to rescue. Thus, there was no resentment between the two parties. The Bishop had received Life everlasting, and the belltowers of Prospit rung to announce the declaration of a final victor.

 

     And so it was that the Bishop lived on to bring peace and harmony to Her Majesty’s kingdom, and led his acolytes with firm kindness and wisdom. He was thankful to the Maid for granting him a second chance at life, where he might continue to enrich the lives of those who followed him. He taught many a student and counseled many a troubled soul in his lifetime, and all who knew him knew well his grace and his patience. Some say that the Bishop even survived the final Reckoning, and continues to live on in our new world, spreading his message of kindness to those who will lend an ear. It is for this reason that the people of this Earth call a streak of luck a “Bishop’s break,” and honor his memory with the Bishop’s Feast Day when springtime is bright and warm. We remember his sacrifice in this way, and the gentle Maid who rewarded him with eternity.

 

 

The end.

Chapter Text

     The year 4379 is very murky when you’re underwater.



     South Mariana is a sprawling metropolis of glass that stretches along part of the Violet Trench, where the sea is a dark, crushing shade of sapphire. Strung between two continents, the Trench is where many seadwellers choose to live for its temperate waters and scenic views. Hidden among thick forests of kelp and tangles of coral reefs, it’s magnificent to behold, emerging in all its iridescence from the natural landscape of the ocean. Unlike the offshore villages that make up the majority of seadwelling settlements, South Mariana attracts landdwellers of all Spheres.

     Today, a small group of Originators took a shuttle from the island of Pyrine. It’s a nonstop trip to South Mariana that allowed them to look out at the dark, deep sea around them. Whale sharks swam peacefully along the ship, dolphins and squid, too, even the occasional seadweller passing by on the back of their lusus, waving at all the passengers inside. When it reached the central station, the shuttle emerged in a lagoon where a dome of glass provided fresh air to those without gills and fins. Scuba equipment was available for weekend renting, but many simply stick to the bridges between city wards that accommodate landdwellers. So that’s what our Originators did.

     Jane Crocker looks up and gazes at the latticed bars of metal that support the great glass domes. Above the pearly city, she can see the dark towers of distant sea stacks, of waving kelp and shadowy mammoths swimming in the murk. Everything is swathed in swirling hues of blue and purple, reflecting and refracting the sunlight through the water. Despite being underwater, the streets are dotted with public fountains. Children can be seen swimming in them. They splash their arms and spit streams of saltwater at each other.

     “Oh, Janey look, look-look-look!” Roxy materializes behind Jane and surprises her with an arm around her neck. She points at a shop front with a hanging wooden sign. “They do fin piercing here. Let’s get our fins pierced. Let’s be bad.”
     “Get your fins pierced.”
     “They do bioluminescent tattoos too, oh-em-geezy, look at that!” she gasps. 

     She steers Jane so that she’s looking straight through the window, where a woman stretched on a long table is getting tattooed with glowing purple ink. Another seadweller at the front counter is picking out jeweled hoops for the stretched piercings in her fins.

     “That would explain the man who was covered in glowing pink spots,” Jane says.
     “I thought he had a bad case of the eczema, myself,” Jasprose purrs as she bumbles alongside them. She doesn’t like being confined to the ground, and walks with her hands shoved in her pockets. 

     Roxy and Jane came to South Mariana today under the pretense of having some one-on-one time, the first time they’ve hung out solo in what feels like weeks and weeks. Jane, however, heard from Jade who heard from John who heard from Rose who was told by Roxy that Roxy thinks Jane has been kind of a sad sack lately. She resents the accusation, but probably would have played along today if it wasn’t for the rude interruption of Cat Rose, who manifested right before the shuttle from Pyrine arrived. And Roxy just loves Cat Rose, cue sarcastic jazz hands, so of course Jane gritted her teeth and bore through the whole trip, with all of their chattering laughter and Cat Rose’s stupid puns and confusing double entendres. 

     “Come on, Jazzy, tell Jane we’re getting tatted. Do you think we need parental consent? Oh, right, it doesn’t matter, we’re our own parents. Maybe I’ll just slide ‘em a cool twenty?”
     “You’re precious and I love you–” Jasprose trills,
     “I love you!”
     “You’re precious and I love you, you’re the tuna to my salmon, but I have something else in mind.”
     Roxy tilts her head. “Whassat?”

     Jasprose snaps her fingers and produces a flyer that looks like it was ripped from a billboard. In looping, hard-to-read calligraphy, the header reads: ‘Her Grace, the Illustrious Princess of the Trench will be hearing the grievances of her constituents on the following dates. Below it is listed a series of dates and times, the closest one being an hour from now. Jasprose jerks her thumb behind her. 

     “Courthouse is a few blocks from here,” she explains, “I figured we could take a pit stop and see what this purr-incess is all about.”
     “But we’re not her constituents,” Jane says blankly.
     Jasprose pinches Jane cheek, and she squawks indignantly. “You are such a cutie, Moon Pie. I really mean it. The blinding brightness of your innocence is as alluring as that of a laser pointer.”
     “You’re so silly, Jazzy,” Roxy sighs affectionately, the way you would react when you see your cat playing with garbage.
     “You’re silly, Roxy,” she purrs back.
     “Are you proposing this plan because you want to flirt with a princess, or because your mysterious Seer powers told you it was the felicitous thing to do?” Jane asks.
     “Who says it can’t be both?”
     “I think it sounds fun!” Roxy says. “Everything in the city seems to stay open til the asscrack of dawn, so it’s not like we’ll miss out on anything by taking a lil detour. And meeting a princess seems kind of cool!”
     “I didn’t think this planet had royalty,” says Jane. “Are we sure this isn’t a pseudonym?”
     Jasprose taps her claw on the bottom of the flyer, which is decorated with a very official, very ostentatious gilded stamp for Her Grace’s office. “Bona fide royalty, mon cherie. Let’s pay a visit to the royal court.”




     Jane Crocker has only been to a courthouse once, when her father had to pick up a copy of her birth certificate for some sort of Crockercorp thing. All of her personal documents were under lock and key – company’s orders – and the inside was nowhere near as dramatic as the cop shows she loved watching. Instead of detectives and lawyers briskly walking-and-talking in fashionable suits, there were bored receptionists and security officers yawning as people passed through metal detectors. Everything was washed with a bland beige, and in the shining tile of the floor, Jane could hardly even make out her reflection. Roxy Lalonde has never been to a courthouse. She only knows that under Her Imperious Condescension’s rule, they were essentially repurposed into gallows, where one would be ushered inside the courtroom to watch the beheading of some hapless revolutionary. Body parts were left between the marble columns to dry in the midday sun.

     South Mariana Courthouse is none of these things. It is tall and gleaming, made of coral and pink marble, and civilians sit on its wide stairs to eat their lunches and read their books. Security is relaxed. A public safety bot merely waves a mechanical wand from its arm, beeping the trio through the front door when it fails to detect any deadly weapons. Inside, a violetblood clerk gives Jane a pamphlet of Standards of Courthouse Etiquette, which she pointedly passes off to Jasprose for studying. 

     “You’re not constituents of the city, but that’s fine,” the clerk sighs. In the reflection of her glasses, Roxy sees that she’s playing online solitaire. “People come from all over just to watch. There’s an out-of-city section for tourists, so present your wristbands to the bailiff and he’ll show you where to sit.” 

     The three of them are fitted with bright orange wristbands marked “TOURIST” in bold letters. Jane thinks it’s embarrassing. Roxy thinks it goes well with her outfit. Jasprose tugs on it the way that a cat does when you put a new collar on it. They go on down the hallway, where tall, gilded portraits of past mayors line the walls. The majority of them are violetbloods, but there are a few sparse landdwelling leaders here and there. Jane studies each democratically elected face as they walk past, and wonders why on earth this city would suddenly have a princess.

     Roxy, on the other hand, takes this appropriate moment to ponder the political systems of Earth C in a way that is, to her, completely organic and not at all expository. Before this Earth fell to ruins, when its land was covered in shitty Libertys and writhing, eldritch tentacles, there was the  Empire with a capital E , the one big shackled ball and chain beholden to Her Condescension alone. Leaders became hollowed mouthpieces for the Empress – sometimes literally. When she’s not forging birth certificates and other run-of-the-mill government documents for her friends, Roxy has spent her free time in each era eating up every iota of political news she can absorb. She is beginning to be sort of an expert in the field. So much so that she could tell you how things run from the bottom to the top, or explain it to you like you’re five years old.

     In the olden days, when the world was new and unsettled, the early model resembled the dukedoms and fiefdoms and other -doms of the medieval world, little factionalities loosely roped under the umbrella of a larger government. And things haven’t changed much since. When someone describes where they live, they say the continent first and the county second. The two vast, sprawling continents of Hemeran and Nyxile have one- to two thousand counties each, and for the most part, county government takes care of the minutiae of daily law and order. Every hundred or so counties are under obligation to a region called an electorate. Each electorate in turn is led by a revolving door of officials who abide to the original Codex put forth by the Mayor and the Parcel Minister. Since South Mariana has a large population and covers a broad, isolated span of water, it is considered its own – albeit small – electorate. All of this is simple and self-evident to the natives of Earth C. It’s also simple to Roxy. It is not so simple to anyone else. What’s not clicking for Roxy, however, is how an electorate managed to spawn the governmental role of ‘princess.’

     Jasprose is not thinking along either of these trains of thought because she is looking at a very pretty violetblood with a pencil skirt that shows off her long legs.

     “Hey, Jazzy, you got all kinds of kitty omniscience.”
     Jasprose shakes her head, yanked back to reality. “Om-ni-shunce?” she asks.
     “That’s what I said,” Roxy replies, “omni-science. Did we pass the courtroom? I feel like we’ve walked by too many doors.”
     “I was under the impression there would be a sign,” Jane says. “Or at the very least, a group of other people wearing these wristbands.”
     Roxy looks around. “Yeah, I’m callin’ it. Time to pass ‘go’ and collect two hundred boonies – let’s ask the nice guard lady for directions.”
     “Wait!” Jasprose stops her with a wave of her hand. “I do have kitty omni-science. This doorway will take us the back way. We can enter through the staff end, just pull your sleeves over your wristbands and try to look like you belong here.”
     “You’re so smart, Jazzy.”
     “You’re so smart, Roxy.”
     Jane rolls her eyes in a dramatic arc that she thinks the other two girls can’t see.

     Of course, Jasprose lied her ass off about all that shit. She just wants to take another long look at the violetblood with nice legs, and going through this door provides a real scenic view. The seadweller meets her eye, and Jasprose mouths a ‘call me’ as the trio passes the threshold. But just because she’s a catgirl now doesn’t mean Jasprose doesn’t still have the sharp intuition that comes with the aspect of Light, and even after the violetblood is out of sight, the room continues to glow with a faint and golden sheen. Something else here is tied up with strings of karmic fate. A big ball of cosmic yarn ready to be batted across the floor. Jasprose sniffs the air, her tail flicking.

     “Something smells fishy,” she says. 
     “Yes, it would,” replies Jane. “We’re underwater.”
     “Quit it, Moon Pie, you know what I mean.” She turns her nose up and keeps sniffing, her mouth slightly open. “Smells like red snapper. Like swordfish? Like… the primest fuckin’ slab at the seafood counter.”

     Jasprose allows her nose to guide her through the room, which looks like a disused conference space. They exit through a back door and continue down a dimly lit hallway, where portholes reveal fish swimming between the walls. Their shoes clack against the shiny tile, dark and morphing shades of blue washing over them. Then Jasprose stops dead, and Jane runs right into her back, causing a three car pile up on the freeway. 

     “What the hell?” Jane asks.
     Jasprose puts a finger to her mouth. “This way,” she says. 

     She points to a narrow stairwell that tapers into shadow. It’s blocked off with a velvet rope. Jane gives her an incredulous face.

     “I love that face for you, Cherry Bomb. It’s so expressive.”
     “Wherever you’re leading us, I don’t think we belong there,” Jane says.
     “It’s cool, Janey, Jazz knows where she’s goin’,” Roxy reassures her. She places a hand on Jane’s shoulder, which tenses so quickly that Roxy promptly removes her hand. “Right, Jazz?”
     “Purrcisely. I would never lead you astray.” Jasprose removes the velvet rope and motions for Jane to go first. “Ladies first, Moon Pie.”

     Upstairs is brightly lit, a kind of sanitary fluorescence like a mall’s perfume department. Marble columns prop up big, fluffy ferns with tendrils that trail across the floor. Each surface is polished to the point of being reflective. Jane studies her distorted face on the surface of a flower vase.

     Voices from the doorway. All three of them freeze as a retinue of seadwellers come through, all of their high heels clicking on the marble. Then they freeze up, too, and the two parties are left staring at one another for several seconds.

     Roxy feels very cold all of a sudden. “Oh, no,” she mutters aloud to no one.
     “Oh wow,” Jasprose trills.
     “Oh, my friends, you must be my special guests!” gasps the foremost among them. “Tell me, did you win Her Grace’s Raffle? I love the Raffle, isn’t it such fun?”

     Her retinue of violetbloods nod and mutter agreements in earnest. The woman they gather ‘round claps her hands, and all of her bangles and rings and bracelets clink together. 

     “Well, well, my honored guests! Well met, and welcome! Of course, you must already know who I am! I am–”
     A pip-squeaking servant in a tunic steps forward. “Presenting Her Grace, the Venerable Hestia Tethis, first of her name, Tyrian Protectress of the Violet Trench and its creatures high and low, Princess of South Mariana, Duchess of Megalodonshire and Reef–”

     Hestia places a hand on her shoulder. She immediately clams up and goes back to her task of fanning Hestia with a palm leaf.

     “They are quite eager in their tasks, they are,” Hestia says. “Has the catfish caught your tongue, my friends? Speak forth your names.”

     The three of them simply stand there and stare. Hestia is a tall, slender seadweller with gills that taper into delicate fronds. She’s draped in a translucent pink chiton, and her body is strung with pearls and beads of precious coral. She walks barefoot, but her gold bangles clack on the floor when she shifts her weight from one foot to the other. A diadem is tucked into her curls of braided hair, which is adorned with gems and tiny pearls. She looks like a Greek statue brought to life, a real-life Nymph sprung from a painting. Jane is flabbergasted. Jasprose is in love. Roxy is horrified.

     “I’m… Jane,” says Jane.
     “Roxy,” says Roxy.
     “I’m whoever you want me to be,” says Jasprose.

     Hestia blinks her long eyelashes and claps once again. She seems like the person who decides many things just by smacking her palms together. At the sound of it, several of her retinue tense up and visibly wince. 

     “Well! I can see by your bands that you are out-of-towners. How very lucky you are, then! I hope in my chamber of chambers that your memories of South Mariana will last a lifetime.”
     “I’m sure they will,” Roxy blurts.
     “Tristi, Topazz, take our esteemed guests to the courtroom!” Hestia demands with yet another clap of her hands. She really is wearing much too much jewelry. “I still have quite a lot of making up to do in my parlor, but rest assured I will face my subjects shortly. Ta-ta for now, my friends!”

     Tristi and Topazz pass their palm leaves to the taller violetbloods, who fan Hestia all the way over to her dressing table. As the three girls are led out of the room and down a pearly hallway, Her Grace starts powdering her face before a big, lit up mirror.

     “Which one of you is Tristi?” Jasprose asks. It’s a fair question – the two shrimpy seadwellers look like twins.
     “I’m Tristi,” whispers the soft-spoken one.
     “She’s Topazz, I’m Tristi,” says the over-eager one.
     “Which one is it?” Jane asks.
     “I am Tristi, sometimes,” says the soft-spoken.
     “She is always Topazz and I am always Tristi.”

     Jane rolls her eyes. As their conversation steers further off the tracks, she stops listening to look at all the aquariums between the walls. Colorful tropical fish with spots and stripes swim amidst the bubbles.

     “What is it like in the courtroom?” asks Roxy.
     “Her Grace will hear the grievances of her subjects,” Topazz/Tristi responds.
     “And what? Does she actually do anything about them?”
     “Her Grace sees to it that her subjects live in peace and harmony,” Tristi/Topazz says.
     Roxy is getting frustrated. “How’d she become a princess, anyway?”

     The twins stop in their tracks. In eerie unison, they spin on their heels and look at Roxy with even, blank expressions. 

     “Her Grace, the Tyrian Protectress, was birthed from the Mother Grub nearly a century ago to the day,” Topazz/Tristi says. “The first of her kind. She had never before produced an Heiress in all her years alive. Her Grace is a miracle of miracles.”
     “There are no heiresses in this world,” Roxy says slowly.
     “You are correct,” Tristi/Topazz replies. “There is no Heiress, there is only the Princess.

     They turn and start walking again. Roxy feels a hard stone of dread building in her gut as they turn down the hall and walk down a stairwell of pink marble, each step traced with bright lights. The sound of other people can be heard now. They’ve made one big circle around the courthouse and ended up where they started.

     “Your directions aren’t as spot-on as you presumed them to be,” Jane nettles Jasprose.
     “I took us precisely where I meant to take us,” Jasprose sniffs. “All roads lead to the litter box, Moon Pie. Aren’t you glad to have met a princess in the flesh?”
     Jane grimaces. “That remains to be seen.”

     The twins usher them inside and lead them to a shiny white bench in the front row. Once seated, more seadwellers materialize. They give the girls a schedule of the day’s events, and a revolving door of servants offer them various beverages. They finally relent when Jasprose accepts a flute of champagne.

     “Is this a prayer service or a court of law?” Jane scoffs at the pamphlet. “Hymnals? Doesn’t this society separate church and state?”
     Roxy fans herself with her own schedule. “South Mariana is an independent electorate. They can do whatever they want here. ‘When in Rome’ and all that fuckery.”
     Jane makes an incredulous noise.

     Before they’re seated long, the courtroom is summoned to its feet. Everyone stands straight and deferent as the curtains part, and excited chatter erupts with Hestia emerges.

     “Presenting Her Grace, the Venerable Hestia Tethis, first of her name, Tyrian Protectress of the Violet Trench and its creatures high and low, Princess of South Mariana, Duchess of Megalodonshire and Reef’s Reach, Countess of the Fuchsia Lagoon and Peixes Grotto, Protector of the Electorate by blood and birthright,” declares Tristi.
     “Be seated!” Topazz says.

     The attendees settle in their seats. Hestia perches upon a cushioned throne that Jasprose thinks would be perfect for a catnap. The Princess spreads out the silky skirts of her pink chiton and begins to twirl a chain of coral ‘round her finger.

     “I declare today’s Assemblage of Aggrievances to be session!” 

     She strikes the arm of her throne with a mother of pearl gavel, and a trumpet is blown. The line of constituents is already out the door.

     “Come forth, little one,” Hestia beckons.

     The first in line is a tall and gangling violetblood with a face etched with the shadows of acne scars. His hands wring nervously at his chest, and he keeps his eyes diverted from the Princess.

     “Your Grace, I am residing in the Shalewater district, and our streets are most amenable due to Your Grace’s generous sanctions. The water is clean and the pickup drones dispose of our refuse without incident. However, on the corner of Basaltine Avenue there is a sewage grate that protrudes into the thoroughfare. Many buggy wheels have ridden over it and displaced the grate, which is much too heavy to move for civilian’s hands. Might there be a way, at Your Grace’s leisure, to prevent further damage?”

     Hestia hardly takes a moment to consider. She bangs the gavel on her throne and announces her verdict. “Very well! Your aggrievance is well met, little one. We shall close buggytraffic along Basaltine Avenue until further notice.”
     The violetblood fidgets. “Oh, um, well, see, the avenue experiences quite some… traffic, and–”

     But he’s already been ushered away. A stout purpleblood is brought forward, whose long hair almost reaches the floor. They give Hestia a short bow before speaking.

     “Venerable Princess, I live in the borough of Trenchfall, which is clean and a pleasure to all who reside in its zoning. There is a place of business well-attended by our neighbors by the name of Shady’s Hard Liquors and Baitery–”
     Jasprose snorts into her champagne.
     “– whose owner is intemperate in his practices. He has in the past month risen the cost of his goods, in blatant disregard for South Mariana commercial code. Yet we have been slow to push him away from this practice, as his location and inventory is unmatched. I seek Your Grace’s amity in correcting the scoundrel’s trouble-brewing in our community.”
     Hestia nods sagely and bangs her gavel. “We shall put a stop to such crookishness among my subjects! In order to swiftly correct his practices, Trenchfall will be a dry borough until further notice.”

     The purpleblood grimaces and opens their mouth to say something else, but their turn is over. They’re led to the back of the line, and the Assemblage continues. Jane, Roxy, and Jasprose watch the next several civilians give their aggrievances to the Princess. Each one is met with a disproportionate solution that completely misses the mark, like demanding that someone’s mantis shrimp lusus spend a day in prison, or banning the presence of women at Peixes Memorial Park to cut down on unwanted solicitations from men. As she does so, a stenographer rapidly types Hestia’s decrees so that a bailiff may present the final paperwork to the aggriever. Jane is starting to get bored. Roxy is getting anxious. Jasprose stops hiding her laughter after she’s had a couple more flutes of champagne.

     As the line dwindles, Roxy thumbs through the pamphlet. At any moment now, the remaining aggrievers will be turned away in order to keep the schedule on track. There will be the singing of a hymnal and a procession of something called “The Dance of the Gratified” – whatever this means. She’s beginning to think that the Courthouse is more of a theatre, a big stage for something akin to the old justice centers of the original Earth. While she’s busy chewing on this train of thought, Jasprose stands on top of her seat.

     “Excuse me!” she says, tapping her drink with a tiny fork that was previously used to eat a complimentary apple tart, “Excuse me, everyone, someone very important is speaking, all eyes up here!”
     “Jasprose,” Jane hisses, “What the fuck are you doing?”
     “You can’t use the word ‘hisses’ to address me, Buttercup, I’m the catgirl, not you.”
     “What are you on about?” Jane asks.

     Hestia stares at Jasprose with her mouth set in a little oval. She doesn’t look angry – just bewildered that anyone would go out of their way to disrupt the script she’s set forward. Several violetbloods move forward to remove Jasprose from the courtroom, but she lifts a fenestrated window above her head and smashes it over the first one who gets close. The pane clatters to the floor and disappears along with the seadweller. Hestia lurches from her seat, grasping her pearls in her white-knuckled fist. The courtroom goes up in a din of disarray.

     “Jazzy, I don’t really think this falls under the ordinances of courtroom etiquette!” Roxy falters.
     “Fuck the catroom etikitten,” Jasprose says, a little sloppily, “I think I’ve seen enough of this dog and pony show to get what’s goin’ on here.”

     It’s a moot point now, though. Whatever happens next, Roxy’s got a mountain of new federal hacking to undertake. It takes more work than her friends think it does to wipe someone from the grid. 

     “What is the meaning of this?” Hestia snaps. She regains enough of her royal tenacity to straighten her shoulders and wipe the look of fear from her face. 
     “You!” Jasprose points at her like a lawyer in a lawyer-based video game. “Who elected you? How many votes did you get in the general election?”
     “Who elected me?” Hestia scoffs. “I am the Tyrian Protectress, I am Princess of the Violet Trench, I am–”
     “Yeah, yeah, we heard all that already, fishtits,” Jasprose says with a yapping motion of her hand. “Hey, all you schlubs! Is this your princess?”

     There’s still a raucous as the people inside the courtroom either try to duck and hide or trample each other on their way out. The few who are dumbstruck enough to stand and listen to Jasprose simply look at each other.

     “She’s… our princess, yes,” one says.
     “She has been Princess all our lives,” another says.
     “Since before we were born and after we’re gone,” adds another.
     “Yes, but did you choose her?” Jasprose asks.

     They stand around and look confused. Jasprose throws her hands in the air and caterwauls.

     “Fuck it! You know I am pretty fed up with how we have to Aesop’s Fables our way out of every stupid situation on this planet! Like I get that the point is that we’re all deities spreading wisdom and mercy to the people of Earth and we’re supposed to be laying the groundwork for all these stupid fairytales, but a girl can only take so many obvious setups before she snaps!” Jasprose tosses her champagne over her shoulder, and it shatters comically behind her.
     “Jazz, you’re freakin’ me out here, girl,” Roxy says in the please calm down we are trying to live in a society voice. It’s a reliable voice that she developed during SBURB, when Jane was slowly beginning to lose her patience with the apocalypse. “What fairytales? What are you talking about?”
     “All of this, Roxy, all of this self-referential tale-spinning, can’t you see it?” Jasprose gestures vaguely all around her.
     “You know I’m a Void gal, but no, I’m havin’ trouble tunin’ into the nothingness you’re gettin’ at.”
     Jasprose pinches the bridge of her nose, and one of her ears flicks irritably. “Right, I forgot I was picked arbitrarily to see all the daft machinations of the greater plotline. Well!” She claps her hands together in a mean imitation of the Princess. “This story’s running a little long, don’t you think? Let’s make like a vet tech and snip this tale in the balls before we overstay our welcome.”
     “Guards!” Hestia shouts. “What are you all standing around for? Remove this intruder, and put an end to terror she’s inflicting upon my subjects!”

     But her guards are much too sheepish to challenge Jasprose now. She throws her head back and laughs, and the eerie flesh-tentacles on her face twitch like whiskers.

     “Oh, my God, how predictable we are. A real Princess would just throw the trident herself, not rely on pussyfooting lackeys. You know, if you wanna be top cat so bad, why don’t I give you a real Princess to emulate?”

     Jasprose summons another fenestrated window. It pops into existence in a glittery burst of pink and purple confetti, which rains down on both Jane and Roxy. Its panes are deepest, truest black – without shadow nor highlight – and they peer into the ichor of its depths. What comes out surprising everyone. From the fenestrated window falls the corpse of Her Imperious Condescension.

     If the courtroom hasn’t lost its shit by now, all remaining shits fly out the window. A collective shriek of horror goes up when the body slumps to the floor, a floppy pile of hair and leather. It seeps wet, fuchsia blood onto the marble floor. 

     “Ew, Jasprose!” Jane shouts, jumping to her feet when the Condesce’s foot brushes hers.
     “Jazz! Bad kitty, where were you keeping that?” Roxy scolds.
     “I wasn’t keeping her anywhere, I just yoinked her from Derse right quick,” Jasprose says.

     Hestia’s hand is clamped over her mouth. She looks ill, and staggers back to hold onto her throne for support. The fins on her face droop like wilting flowers. 

     “Is that,” she croaks, “is that what I… is she… is….”
     “Her Imperious Condescension, sixteenth of her name, Meenah Peixes, Empress of Alternia, General of the Crimson Fleet and Commander of the Alternian Intergalactic Battalion, feared and beloved queen, confectionery saleswoman, and TV game show host. Responsible for roughly five billion deaths during her lifetime, three hundred large-scale crushed insurgencies, and seven hundred types of devil’s food cake. Felled by a Chinatown katana, six teenagers, and two phantasmal milves.”
     “It’s impossible!” Hestia cries. “Improbably, untenable–”
     “Yes, yes, ‘holy shit it’s the Originators,’ same kibble, different day,” says Jasprose. “Cue the mix of horror and adulation as skyward asses fall to worship the undercover gods.”
     Jane is trembling with fury now. Another vacation in a lovely city has been soiled, and this time it’s not even her own fault. “Why on Earth did you think this was an acceptable idea, Jasprose?”
     “What, and let this clown with zero real-life governing experience rule her city like a Barbie dream house?” she snorts. 
     “I am no clown!” Hestia shrieks. A few of the pearls strung through her hair fall out and tumble across the floor. “For a hundred years I have overseen the well-being of this city! I have dedicated mind, body, and soul to its people, to its creed, to its law and order!”
     “Okay, and so did all the mayors before you,” Jasprose replies. “They were chosen by the people. What’s your excuse?”
     “I was chosen by the Mother Grub! I am the firstborn fuchsiablood of this world!”
     “Doesn’t that just make you a mutant?”

     Hestia glares at Jasprose in a manner that suggests that, if she had access to a trident right now, she’d skewer her into Meow Mix on the spot. Jasprose kicks the Condesce’s body forward. It flops lazily, oozing tyrian. The leather of her tight wetsuit squeaks, and her jewelry clatters – scrap metal weighing down the jetsam. Jasprose leans and grasps the sharp, golden diadem from her forehead. It’s caked in dirt and blood, some of it hers, some of it not. She flings it across the courtroom like a boomerang, and Hestia catches it. 

     “I think you probably mean well, and don’t really intend to fuck over your constituents with your buffoonery,” Jasprose says. “For all you know, the oohing and aahing and fawning and fussing over you since you popped out the Grub’s b-hole just messed up the way your head works. But you seem halfway decent, and to back it up you’re hot as hell. Like, drop dead gorgeous. Even if you weren’t a princess I’d swipe right.”

     Hestia doesn’t respond at first. She stands with her mouth agape, all her little shark teeth showing, and she looks down at the diadem in her hand. It’s dented and scratched now. The power that it held has been drained. It’s just a piece of metal.

     “What do you want from me?” she finally asks. “Why did you come?”
     “I don’t want anything from you, ‘cept maybe your number and your skincare routine,” Jasprose trills. “Actually, this wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t serving drinks at a public hearing, like, especially if they’re bottomless. I just came here to kick it with my bitches, and things got a little out of hand.”
     “Thanks to you,” Jane seethes.
     “Thanks to me. You’re welcome by the way. All I’m saying is… gosh, how to word this. I’m trying to be more sensitive, you know?”
     “I think you should step down,” Roxy says firmly.
     “Step… down?” Hestia asks.
     “Step down. As Princess, as Protectress, as whatever you call yourself. Step down, and let this city govern itself as it already knows how.”
     Hesita laughs. “I have been sole Princess of the electorate since I was sixteen. South Mariana needs my guiding hand. It has forgotten what it was like to vote for its figureheads.”
     “Then maybe it should learn how.”

     Hestia looks again to the body of Her Condescension. A hushed, frightened silence falls over the courtroom. The people look upon the corpse and only feel afraid. Afraid that she’ll sit up and return to life, afraid that she’ll vaporize them into ashes like the old fables claim. But she just lies there, smelly and silent and still. Jasprose yanks a fenestrated pane from nothing and uses it to disappear her body, back to wherever it came from. What’s left on the floor is a dark, gooey stain of tyrian blood. 

     “I’m gonna speak for both my gals here and say that we really oughtta be heading out,” Jasprose says. “I’d say ‘sorry for the trouble’ and all those pleasantries, but to be honest I think I saved you from a bunch more down the line. Such a shame, though. I would’ve really liked to go to Shady’s before we left!”

     Yet another window appears above their heads. On the other side, blessed freedom. The girls hop on top of the bench and prepare to jet the hell away from this place before someone becomes clearheaded enough to take a picture of them. 

     “Wait!” shouts a singular voice. Jasprose turns to see that it’s the violetblood with the long legs. “Before you leave, take this!”

     She tosses a little paper airplane, and Jasprose unfolds it. It’s her phone number. She bursts into laughter.

     “Thanks, babe! Maybe in the next century!” She jerks her chin toward the window and beckons her friends to follow her. “C’mon, let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
     “As if we have a choice!” Jane sighs.
     “That’s a wrap, folks! So long, and thanks for all the fish!”

 

     The trio crashes through the window and arrive on the sandy shore of Pyrine. The dock they used to board the shuttle is farther down the beach. Courtroom chaos can still be heard on the other side before Jasprose wills the window from existence.

     Jane hacks up voidstuff as she pushes herself upright from the sand. She swats Jasprose’s hand away when she offers to help. 

     “Normal Rose, I bet you, would not have done any of that!” Jane shouts.
     “True. Normal Rose would have sat through the entire thing, written about the experience, and submitted it as a thinkpiece to a liberal editorial,” Jasprose agrees.
     Roxy frowns. “Way harsh, Jazz. Don’t call Rose a liberal.”
     “Anyway! I have the wherewithal to admit that I may have gone a teensy bit overboard back there.”
     “You think!” Jane hollers. "Like, where did you disappear that poor, hapless seadweller? Did you kill him?"
     "Goodness gracious!" she meows in a hoity-toity accent. "Heavens no, I simply disappeared him to the edge of the city."
     "Great, like that's any less traumatic for the fellow."
     “Janey, it’s okay, all right?” Roxy says. She’s not the expert she thinks she is at deescalating Jane’s sour moods, though. Jane swats her hand away, too.
     “It’s not okay! All I wanted is a peaceful outing in a new and exciting city with my best friend, but no, we can’t even have that.”
     “There’s always the next era,” Roxy offers. “We’ll go again, just you and me.”
     “Ouch!” Jasprose says. “Putting me away in the kennel, are you?”
     “You have to have some time to think about what you’ve done,” scolds Roxy. “Even though this is your first offense. We all get one strike when it comes to screwin’ up our chances at settling in a century. One more strike and you’ll really be in trouble!”
     “Oh, no, you’re not making me wear Karkat’s hat of shame.”
     “You will wear the hat of shame and you’ll tolerate it, too, even if it’s soaked up his b.o.!”

 

     Roxy and Jasprose continue to squabble as they hike up the Pyrinian seashore. A bus will come to collect them, and when they reach the bed and breakfast they’ve been staying at, Roxy will gently break the news they threw a corpse at a Princess and disappeared into thin air. And then Roxy will kill them all off from the grid once more. All in a day’s work, and a pattern with which we’re becoming intimately familiar. 

     Jane kicks the sand. One day, she’ll get another opportunity to hang out with Roxy Lalonde, just the two of them, the way it used to be, the way it was for months and months when Roxy was all she had. Sometimes a feral cat comes in and shits all over your good time. It happens. Another time will come, she tells herself. She’ll get to go to a big city with a treasured friend and enjoy the day without outing herself as an Originator – that stupid, pompous title she hates so much. It’ll happen again one day. Jane and Roxy will return to South Mariana another time, in another era, and when that time comes, there won’t be a Fuchsia Princess reigning any longer.

Chapter Text

The following tale is lifted from reports of seadwellers who were present for the aftermath of the events herein. The titular princess, presumably from embarrassment, has not recounted her own version of the story to this day. The subject of this fable is immortalized as an underwater mural that decorates the Mausoleum of Ancient Tyrannies in South Mariana.

 

     Once upon a time, deep in the dark blue depths of the ocean, there was a kingdom made of pearl and glass. It was a small kingdom, with subjects who worked very hard for a living. They were protected by tall forests of kelp, and sharks swam through its waters to keep the common people safe. The people in this underwater kingdom were happy with their simple lives, they were happy with the warm water and beautiful reefs that grew throughout their city. However, everything changed one fateful day, when the Mother Grub upon the surface was delivered of her first fuchsia daughter. 

     It had been foretold ever since the Mother Grub laid her first clutch that one day, the Trollian Sphere would once again have thirteen marvelous hues of blood. Much had changed since the Mother Grub first hatched. The world saw the rebirth of the lime caste, which had been snubbed in another universe by the terrible Empress. It saw the flourishing of the warm-hued castes, who had their lives cruelly slashed short by the Empire. Yet for millennia, nary a droplet of tyrian blood emerged from the Grub’s canal. The many-tentacled beasts of the hadopelagic trenches had foretold of this daughter in their whisper-clicking wisdom, and at the time that they promised, the Broodcavern was gifted with a wiggler of royal hue. When the first fuchsia was born, the kingdom rejoiced. Fountains flowed with wine, and choirs sang in the cathedrals, belltowers rang day and night, and the banquet halls were filled with merriment and joy. This was surely the beginning of a new era. All the missing pieces of this world would fall into place, everything would be right with the Earth and all of its Spheres, and a dawn of a new day would begin.

     The Fuchsia Princess enjoyed the leisurely upbringing, surrounded by fine trinkets and higher learning. She dined with golden forks and ate the richest clams, and the clearest, most iridescent pearls were strung through her silky, onyx hair. When she walked, her lovely gowns flowed behind her like the beautiful fronds of a sea slug, and the delicate chiming of her jewelry followed her with each step. She was accompanied day in and day out by a retinue of scholars and artisans and politicians who instructed her in the mannerisms of a proper ruler. Before she was twelve years old, the Princess spoke several languages, could paint in oils, was deft in several musical instruments, knew the common Codex well, and was versed in the history of the Four Spheres. She was the treasure of her people, who were eager to crown her the figurehead of their kingdom. When she turned sixteen, the Fuchsia Princess assumed the first Throne of the Violet Trench, and began her reign in the deep, blue depths.

     Little did the Princess know, however, that another set of eyes had looked over her throughout her life. The Originators knew all too well what tyranny came with the vaunted tyrian class. It was a select hue, of precious few wigglers who oft had their lives snuffed out before they could taste saltwater in their gills. They were wary of how the Spheres would react when the Grub delivered her first fuchsia wiggler. The Originators also knew, though, that the pigment of one’s blood did not define their character. It was not predestined for the Princess to become a terrible queen like the Empress before her, but with a push in the wrong direction, many subjects might fall to her terror. 

     So the Originators selected a trio of goddesses to watch over the Princess and see that she led her people in fairness and justice. They picked the Rogue of Void, who had once lived among the watery ruins of the Old Earth, and lost her family and her future to the Empress. They picked the Maid of Life, who shared the Empress’ Aspect, and who in many lifetimes had lived under her thumb, and thus knew her well as one knows the foul moods of an angry lusus. For the third, they picked the Seer of Light, who could see each thread of karmic destiny wrapped tight ‘round the Princess, and who would be the first to spot if her actions would lead down a grievous path. Thus, the Fuchsia Princess ruled over her people without the slightest idea that the Originators were studying her. They watched as she passed laws and sanctions and decrees, they watched as she presided over the criminal court and listened to the pleas of the kingdom’s most downtrodden. 

     It came to be that the Fuchsia Princess ruled her kingdom for nearly a century. Such a span of time was merely a drop in the bucket for the Princess and her violetblooded subjects, but a landmark nonetheless. The three goddesses elected to leave their stations and travel among mortals, so that they may watch the Princess in action. They would judge her manners and her morals and decide whether she was worthy to continue her reign of the people. So one day, they plunged into the sea and swam down into the Violet Trench, and shortly came upon the kingdom of coral and kelp. 

     It was a beautiful city lit up with sparkling colors, and the Originators found that its people cherished the Princess dearly. Her portrait was hung above many hearths, and it seemed as though she could do no wrong. The three goddesses questioned the people they met regarding their feelings toward the Princess.

The Princess in her benevolence eliminated gambling from my neighborhood by forbidding the exchange of currency, said one.

It is by the grace of the Princess that my sick child is no longer bothered by the passing of the shuttle trains, for she has commanded that its route be diverted, said another.

–  Her Grace sentenced my lusus to Aggressor’s Prison, and I am now free to do whatever I wish with my days, said one wiggler.

     So her subjects were well pleased with their Fuchsia Princess. However, an Originator has a much more discerning eye than that of a mere mortal. To judge the Princess for themselves, the three goddesses decided to visit the royal palace and test her virtues firsthand.

     The royal court was open to the public, as the Princess believed in the goodwill and decency of her people. The Originators were allowed through the gate of her marvelous gardens, where fountains flowed among forests of kelp and prongs of colorful coral. Rainbow, glittering fish darted among the streams, and children delighted in playing hide-and-seek with the palace guards. The Originators were impressed with the opulence of the Princess’ hive, and were pleased that she elected to share its expanse. Shortly they were led through the halls of the palace to the Princess’ throne room, which shone in rainbow hues like the inside of an oyster shell. And there they met her in all her splendid glory. She had grown into a fine young woman, with waves of black hair and speckles of tyrian freckles across her shoulders. She was draped in lacy veils and strings of fine jewels, and when she smiled it seemed as though her face was alight from within. 

–  Greetings, my daughters, said the Fuchsia Princess. I am told that you have concerns as residents of my kingdom. I bid you to come forth and share with me your plight, so that I may lighten the load of your worries.

     The Rogue of Void was the first to step forward. She did not kneel before her, but instead observed the Princess’ reaction. Sure enough, the Princess appeared irked at the subtle lack of respect.

Your Grace, I come from a district of your glorious city in which many citizens vie for control of the writing of the communal standards of conduct. It is unclear to us to whom we should place our trust. However, they will not consent to an election. I seek your council in selecting a worthy leader to represent our interests.
      Why, such petty squabbling for a single district alone? she asked. The Princess threw her head back and laughed a tinkling laugh. No need for an election, little one. I will have my council draft the standards for your district, and they will be placed into effect by the next morn.

     The Rogue frowned, but she stepped back nonetheless. The Maid of Life was the second to approach the throne. She folded her hands before her.

–  Your Grace, while I was attending school above the surface, my mother undertook the rearing of my only child. Now that I have returned, she insists that she is more mother to the babe than myself, and should concede to her in all manner of decisions regarding their upbringing. For several days I have been barred from seeing my own offspring. I plead for Your Grace’s intervention on my behalf.
–  Such back and forth bickering over a child’s life will simply not do, clucked the Princess. The babe will be housed and fed by a communal care facility until you plead your case in a court of law.

     The Maid was dissatisfied, but relented and stepped back. The last to approach was the Seer of Light, who watched closely all the taut strings of fate tugging upon the Princess in each direction. They grew on her like barnacles, countless gossamer threads connecting her to each of her subjects, criss-crossing over one another in endless contradiction. 

–  Your Grace, I am not a citizen of this city. Rather, I have traveled far in order to tell you what my superiors are afraid to convey. I am an understudy cavernmeister who works with the Mother Grub firsthand, and in the most recent clutch, it has come to our attention that the Grub produced a second fuchsia wiggler.

     The Princess went pale in the face. She stood quickly from her throne, trembling with fear. For she was terrified to lose her special place in life, that with another tyrianblood to share her caste she would no longer be beloved by her subjects. The Princess clutched her pearls in terror.

–  Is this true, Broodmistress?
–  It is as true as the ocean is blue.
–  And where is this wiggler now?
–  I have brought the wiggler with me, answered the Seer. 

     She produced something large and hulking and tossed it upon the palace floor. It was the very corpse of the terrible Empress, whose body the Rogue carried about as a reminder of her final act of vengeance for her fallen society. The Princess parted her mass of black and crusted hair and shrieked in fear. The clammy, frozen face that looked sightlessly back at her was nearly identical to her own. Her makeup was smeared, her jewelry was cracked and dented, and death had preserved her final look of shock when the Rogue managed to strike her down. 

What black magic is this? cried the Princess. For what reason have you brought me my very own corpse.
–  It is not your corpse, replied the Seer, but the corpse of your predecessor. Look upon the last of fuchsia blood who forced her rule upon the people.
–  I have forced nothing! insisted the trembling girl. I was placed into power by my people, I was chosen to lead!
–  You are a smart girl in some respects, and care deeply for the welfare of those beneath you, said the Seer. But these are the traits that should make it evident for you to step down as their leader. It does not matter whether you forced your leadership upon them or not. A true leader is chosen, and when the time is right, passes her title to another who is ready to improve upon her rulings.

     The Princess dwelled on this for some time. She was frightened and sickened by the face of the Empress, who had slain many innocents and committed countless atrocities. It was the only fuchsia face she had ever seen that was not on the other side of a mirror. Was she destined to grow into this cruel demoness, who cared not for the will of the people? She shuddered to consider such a possibility. Perhaps it would be best to relinquish her title of Princess, and allow the old elected leaders of the city resume their ruling. It was not too late to turn the tide of her history – many of her constituents were young when she was born, and would live for many more years to come. She could still be remembered as righteous and good, and close this brief chapter of her life.

     So the Princess stepped upon the Empress’ back and shook the Seer’s hand, and thanked the Originators for visiting her palace in the flesh. She was humbled by their presence, and felt blessed that they had watched over her throughout the many years of her life. 



     And so it was that the Fuchsia Princess abdicated the First and Only throne of the Violet Trench, and the old mayors resumed their wise and kindly leadership of the city. The Fuchsia Princess remained in the kingdom and sequestered herself to a quieter role, one in which the people would not flock to her merely due to the tyrian pigment of her blood. In the years that followed, the former Princess turned her childhood palace into a Mausoleum of Ancient Tyrannies, which sought to teach the horrible crimes of the old Alternian Empire. In this way, seadwellers could look upon the terrors of the Old Ways and be grateful that they no longer lived under the reign of the Empress. They were content to live in their peaceful city, where the Four Spheres could exist in harmony underneath the sparkling ocean waves. They remembered the Princess’ brief reign fondly for many years, and admired her modesty in abdicating her throne. And above all, they were grateful to the Originators for watching over their city, and for turning the tide of their government for the better.



 

The end.

Chapter Text

     The year 4611 is dry and dusty.

 

     Perhaps this description is too specific. The year 4611 is dry and dusty when one is in the Western Wastes, because the Western Wastes have been just that since the terrareformation of this world. In the farthest reaches of the continent of Hemeran, there lies a stretch of desert where no life grows. The heat is relentless, bouncing off the sand every which way, and Dirk Strider is convinced that only an idiot would think it was a good idea to feel out a new century by exploring its barren reaches. Which is probably why this was his idea. 

     The Western Wastes are not entirely pointless. Nothing sentient of value thrives here, but its vast breadth and exposure to the midday sun makes it invaluable for the purpose of harvesting solar energy. At the border of the Wastes, before it becomes too dangerous to tread farther, there are massive structures of black steel covered in warped, bluish-tinted glass. The Central Solar Supply Grid has its base in the Wastes. Extraordinarily huge solar panels, they collect enough energy to fuel each and every settlement across Earth C for months –  all in just an afternoon. The panels are maintained and serviced by drones. It’s treacherous for living creatures to work out here, and it’s not just because of the heat.

     A pair of vultures are croaking as they fly overhead. Waiting for one of them to get killed or drop dead of heatstroke. Jake English lifts his hand to shield his eyes from the sun and gazes up at them.

     “You’re better off ignoring them,” Dirk calls. “They’re after me, anyway.”
     Jake turns. The frayed hem of his cloak billows in the dry wind. “How d’you figure?”
     Calliope’s voice materializes behind Dirk. If she hadn’t done this so many times already, it might still cause Dirk to jump in fright. “Mr. Strider is starting to be of the persuasion that he’s not cut out for the desert as much as he believed he’d be.”
     Jake laughs. “Well, did you think it would be an easy transition? You’ve lived your whole life in freaking Atlantis, after all.”
     A bead of sweat rolls down Dirk’s forehead. He wants to take a cold shower. “The terrible weight of my arrogance is crushing. I fear I may never walk again.”

     Calliope skips along between them. She leaves her hood down, and her scratchy cloak bounces as she does so. Her feet leave taloned prints in the dunes, which makes it appear as though a tiny Baba Yaga has ridden her hut through these parts. If she’s uncomfortable, she doesn’t look it.

     “You’re in high spirits, Callie!” Jake notes.
     “Indeed! I’m in my element!” Calliope spins and gathers her hem in her clawed hands. “Compared to the sweltering temperatures I experienced in my childhood, this heat is absolutely divine! Not too hot, nor too chilly. It feels perfect!”
     “Say, let’s trade places, then, and you can take a turn at being a melting human ice cream cone?”
     Calliope frolics on ahead. “I’ll pass!”

     Welcome to the Desert of the Real.

     Dirk Strider picked this location because no one else wanted to touch it. Era to era, century to century, everyone knows you don’t venture into the Western Wastes. It’s all very Howl’s Moving Castle if you ask him. 

     Aside from studying the fascinating, environmentally-sound structures that find their home here, Dirk came to the Wastes – and brought his friends kicking and screaming along – because he’s due for a change. It can’t all be tea parties and patty cake and playing hopscotch in a quaint little solarpunk town square, okay? Someone’s gotta push the envelope a little. Someone’s gotta come away with a story that wasn’t all, oh, we taught a princess the magic of democracy, gee willikers, I just saved some poor stranger from an allergic reaction . Where’s the risk? Where’s the stakes, damn it?

     Don’t tell anyone, this stays between us, but Dirk Strider wants his own fairytale too. And who are we to deny it to him? He went to the trouble of traveling to the most inhospitable place on the planet, after all. So let’s get the ball rolling. 

     “Oy, Dirk!” Jake shouts. He points across the dunes. “About the vultures. I think they’re less concerned with you and more interested in that .”

     Dirk shields his eyes to see. Its light color made it hard to spot in the sun, but now he can make out the shape of a collapsed lusus naturae . The size of a horse, it’s an iguana-looking thing with long spines and rough scales. Its side heaves as it tries to keep breathing. The vultures craw overhead. They’re waiting for it to stop struggling in the sand.

     “Aw, poor thing,” Jake clucks. “You hate to see it.”
     “You really do,” Calliope agrees. “It’s survival of the fittest out here, is it not?”
     “He almost made it.” Dirk jerks his head to the nearest solar panel. “I think he was aimin’ for the shade. Ran outta fuel before he got there.”

     Jake and Calliope exchange a look, then look up to give Dirk puppy eyes. He sighs.

     “Fine. All right. But y’all are steering the front half.”

     And so the three of them hoist the iguana-lusus up from the hot sand and stagger into the shade of the solar unit, right by the fence that protects the unit from tampering. The lusus isn’t as heavy as Dirk expected it to be – maybe because it hasn’t eaten, maybe because Jake and Calliope both have impressive upper arm strength. Either way, they make quick work of it. Jake takes a flask of water from his sylladex and allows it to drink until it’s spitting up. When he sets it away, Dirk hears that there’s hardly any water left for Jake. He makes a mental note to give him shit if he decides to complain about it later.

     “There you are, little buddy. Right as rain.” Jake pats the lusus’ side, and it makes a lowing sound like a cow. “Take a rest, and don’t fall asleep. Then the vultures will think you’re dead!” He laughs a little. “I found that out the hard way!”
     “He’s very cute,” Calliope says. “I do hope he averts the cruel jaws of death.”

     Jake and Calliope stand to brush the sand off their cloaks, which does about as much good as trying to dry yourself off while you’re floating in a pool. Jake takes a moment to appreciate that they all look like they could be extras on the set of a Mad Max movie, but keeps it to himself on account of the many Tatooine references he’s already made today. The lusus licks its chops and lays its head on the ground, and he hopes he made at least a little difference in whether the creature lives or dies.

     “So,” he says, pointing to the solar unit, “now that we’ve seen one in person, what do you plan on doing with it?”
     “Doing ‘with’ it?” Dirk asks. “Why does a tourist visit the Eiffel Tower? I don’t want to interfere with it, I just want to study it.”
     “Past the barbed wire?” Calliope asks incredulously. 
     “We can fly over barbed wire.”
     “I can’t!” she complains.

     The Central Solar Supply Grid is stretched across the border of the Wastes like a field of wind turbines. Black pillars of steel that reach the sky, the glass of their panels shimmer iridescent in the blazing sun. Each one is protected by a tall fence wrapped in barbed wire. Yellow signs in different languages advertise the dangers of approaching the panels, or touching the electric fences. ‘HIGH VOLTAGE – KEEP YOUR DISTANCE,’ one reads. ‘AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY PAST THIS POINT,’ reads another. If you listen very closely and stand very still, you can hear the thrumming of electricity in the air. It can make the hairs on your arms stand on end if you venture too close. Electricity is even humming under their feet, far underground, feeding through the wires that will go on to power homes and cities and zeppelins and trains all over the planet.

     “I just wanted to hop the fence and see what kind of digs they’ve got goin’ on in there,” Dirk says. “You don’t have to follow me. Actually, it’s probably better if you don’t. The air seems pretty conductive ‘round here.”
     “Oh, I see,” Calliope says, “you brought us along to be your spotters.”
     “My what?”
     “You know, like when a construction fellow is digging a hole in the concrete,” Jake says, “and the five other folks he’s working with just stand around with their hands on their hips saying, ‘yes that certainly is a big hole he’s digging,’ but making no contributions in the way of real work.”
     “That’s not really a comparable example, but okay.”
     “What shall we do if you shock yourself to death, Mr. Strider?” asks Callie.
     “Uh…” Dirk pushes his sunglasses up. “Tell Dave I lost the bet, I guess, and maybe make sure a vulture doesn’t go to town on my liver?”
     “That sounds easy enough!” Jake nods. “You go about your illegal busybodying with public infrastructure, and Callie and I will look after our new friend here.”

     Dirk is about to jump the fence, but just then there’s a coarse, cacophonous sound of rattling in the air. It’s like someone is jangling a chain of spoons, or bashing rusty tambourines together. It comes from everywhere, bouncing off all the sand at once, and the three of them duck closer to the ground. The vultures fly away from the noise, and the lusus against the fence groans pitifully.

     The sand is moving – or rather, something under the sand is moving. It shuffles rapidly in a zig-zagging motion, skating just beneath the surface, causing the dunes to ripples in waves overtop it. Dirk’s first assumption is that it’s some sort of basilisk, a skeletal underling that made its way from SBURB into this wasteland. Calliope thinks it’s a boa constrictor, because she has a very loose idea of what one looks like after being shown a picture of one in Jade’s elementary-level encyclopedia. Jake thinks it’s the sandworm from Dune. Whatever it is, it rises from the surface, and they see that it’s made of a rusty sort of bronze material. Mechanical legs sprout from its underbelly like spider’s legs, and the metal buggy shakes off sand. 

     “What the fuck is that!” Jake shouts, “Is that the police? Oh, gosh, are we under arrest for trespassing?”
     Dirk looks around the dunes, where twiggy figures are beginning to appear in twos and three. “I highly fuckin’ doubt that this is the feds, dude.”
     Calliope pulls her hood over her face and draws her white magnum from her cloak. “I think it’s in our best interest to defend ourselves, boys.”
     Dirk nods curtly and withdraws a shitty prop sword from his strife specibus. “Heard.”

     The buggy skitters to a halt before them, and the doors screech upward. An improbable amount of people come pouring out, of all shapes and sizes, each carrying an equally diverse and deadly-looking firearm. The three of them are quickly surrounded by men and women in coarse, dirty cloaks. They have them trained in the crosshairs of their weapons – homemade things that resemble crossbows, harpoons, bayonets, rifles. Some of them crackle with electricity, like they could stun or shock you. 

     Chief among them is a human woman, and Dirk notices that the vast majority of these people are human. She has an uncombed mane of sandy blonde hair, and her skin has been sizzled a permanent, sunburnt red. It gives her the look of a formerly rich woman who, following her third divorce, developed an addiction to tanning salons. Her weapon is a hulking contraption of metal and wires, falling somewhere within the harpoon genus. She barks a few unintelligible commands to the humans behind her.

     “Who ever saw a sun-worker rock-dumb enough to hold a weapon?” she says. She laughs a smoker’s laugh. “A rookie on the job who ain’t finishing with the orientations.”
     Her subordinates – Dirk assumes – begin to laugh slowly. They have their hoods pulled over their faces, but he can see that they’re similarly sunburnt, covered in scratchy scars and badly botched tattoos. “I think you’re confused. We aren’t ‘sun-workers.’”
     “Playing the fool is a dead man’s game,” she growls.
     “He isn’t lying, ma’am,” Jake pipes up. “We’re simply on vacation, that’s all. Just a regular jaunt in the sun. Is there any fault in that?”

     The wiry-haired blonde eyes him critically. After a moment, she lowers her weapon. She makes a chitter-clicking sound that must mean something along the lines of all clear, because everyone else lets their guard down, too. 

     “These here ain’t sun-workers,” she calls. “No badge-tags nor buggymobile to speaks of.” She cocks her head. “What busying have you in the Wastes, little rodent-boy?”
     Dirk tries not to gawk at the name she’s just called him, remembering that the three of them are sorely outnumbered. “We aren’t from around here. This was actually all my idea, really, so if you’re going to beef with any of us I’m kinda your g–”
     She raises her weapon again. “Getting to the point, rodent-boy.”
     “Right. Yes. We came here because,” he plants both hands to his collar, “I wanted the opportunity to see these machines up close, and get an idea of how they work. Pure scientific curiosity, that’s all.”

     She stares at him for several seconds. Dirk flip-flops between being convinced that she’ll either pistol whip him or laugh in his face.

     “Tinker-thieves!” she shouts. It sounds like an accusation, but her comrades relax. “You are among un-foes, skinny ninja boy.” She tucks the gun into her holster and thumps Dirk so hard on the back that he staggers forward. “You are a mechanicalist?”
     “Of sorts.”
     “‘Of sorts,’ says the ninja. You either are or you are not. So you are.” Her grin shows off all her dirty, blackened teeth. “You will be of assisting, then. We’ve use for rodent hands.”

     Dirk looks to Jake, who looks to Calliope, who looks to Dirk, who looks back to Calliope. Whatever these dangerous, feral bumpkins need assistance with, it can’t be good. It probably isn’t legal, either. Dirk swallows and tries to choose his next words carefully.

     “Are you trying to cut off power?” Jake asks suddenly.
     Dirk bites the inside of his cheek. God damn it, English.

     The woman bares her grimy smile at Jake. She might appear impressed if it didn’t look like she was barely restraining the desire to attack them.

     “You are from the Gulf. Are you from the Gulf? You must be from the Gulf,” she laughs lowly. “How much are you knowing of the Nomads, big child-man?”
     Jake blinks hard. “Er, nothing, to be perfectly honest.”
     “Not from the Gulf,” she clucks. “Lacking in the arrogance. But mind-sharp all the same.”
     “So you are cutting power,” Dirk postures.
     “Don’t be looking so dopey-mopey about it,” the woman laughs. “It is the same as smacking about an ill-behaving wiggler-tyke. The sun-worker drone will come in the morn to be fixing it, and then we will reap its belly of circuitry and metal bits. Hardly no harm will be done for them.”
     “But these structures power countless homes across the world,” Jake says. “You’re depriving them of what they need to do… well, anything! Isn’t that the dictionary definition of harmful?”
     “Big man-child thinks him a saint,” she says. “Tell me, do you feel shame when you smash and squish the spiders in your home?”
     Jake frowns. “Sometimes.”
     “Ha ha! Then you would not understand. These things,” she says with a broad, sweeping motion of her arm, “are a blight. They are a monument to grievous sin.”
     “What sin are you talking about?” asks Dirk.
     “The sin of existence.”
     “Existing is a sin now?” Jake asks.
     “Oh, yes. Each and every one of us, we occupy a land brought back from the dead. Fate had sealed the doom of the earth we walk upon, and in our arrogance we parted the oceans to our wills. Our standing here is a sin. Our speaking is a sin. Our anything is a sin.”
     “What is the alternative, exactly?” asks Dirk.
     “Nothing,” she says with a grin. “Nothing at all.”
     Jake furrows his brows. “If it’s a sin to be alive, then why is it you lot haven’t gone and offed yourselves? That seems like a simple way to redeem yourself, doesn’t it?”
     The woman’s smile stretches across her face. “It is not willed for us yet.”

     At this, the three Originators look at one another. 

     Calliope hides her hands in her cloak and keeps her face down. The people of Earth C know about cherubs, well enough that people don’t gawk at her for being a freak of nature, but she doesn’t like the attention her appearance attracts. Even if it’s innocuous as a child reaching out to touch her scaly hand in the middle of a farmer’s market. And she especially doesn’t want the attention of her . Something about these people is unhinged, like some long ago kingdom took a band of their worst prisoners and dumped them out in the Wastes to die, and somehow they developed this roving society of vandals and thieves.  So she shrivels up and makes herself small before she speaks.

     “I’m sure you think you’re doing a righteous thing,” she says in a hushed murmur. “But I think, we cannot stay and participate in whatever you have planned.” Calliope shifts her weight between her taloned feet, which are bare in the sand, and she’s suddenly more self-conscious than before. “There are clearly many more of you than there are of us, and it would probably be quite foolish to try and scrap with you, so I think it would be best for both our parties if we simply parted ways.”

     The frizzy-haired blonde woman looks Calliope up and down, so she further shrinks into herself. Jake and Dirk both shift into defensive stances before her, moving quickly and subtly to defend their friend. But they are two shrimpy little boys, and this woman is older, bigger, grittier, and is packing one hell of a gnarly looking weapon. She makes quick work of shoving them aside with the butt of her gun. 

     As the woman approaches Calliope, she can smell a burnt, metallic scent on her. The shirt poking out of her cloak was probably white at some point, but has turned a yellowish shade of beige with sweat, age, and grease stains. Holes and tears in her clothes have been mended with sloppy needlework, and the leather of her boots is so faded that Calliope is surprised they haven’t fallen into ribbons by now. 

     “Well, well, what little garden snake have we here?” she says with all the empty affection of an estranged aunt.
     “Watch it,” Dirk warns.

     The woman raises her arm, and several of the wanderers point their weapons at Dirk. They remain trained on him as the woman examines Calliope, trying to peek under her hood. Callie lowers her face until her chin is tucked into her collar. 

     “Hello, little pretty one,” she coos. “What an unusual carapace you have. Are you perchance a greenblood?”
     Calliope shakes her head a little. Her arms are still hidden in her cloak, and she holds on tight to her pistol.
     “Shy all of a sudden, our little snake is,” she continues. “Why won’t you show me your face, hm?”
     “I’d rather not,” Callie whispers, nearly inaudible.
     “What’s that?”
     “I’d rather not,” she repeats, just a hair louder.
     “What a shame.” She withdraws her weapon and lifts the very tip of it, a jagged two-pronged metal edge that resembles a taser. 
     “Hey!” Jake barks, “Leave her alone!”
     “Oh, the boy-child is chivalrous,” the woman says with a dramatic roll of her eyes. “Relax yourself, man-boy, I’ll not scratch a scale on her skin.”

     Calliope tenses as the hot metal of the harpoon gun prods the underside of her chin. A nervous puff of breath leaves her, and for the first time, she really focuses on the woman. At the same time the woman moves to tilt Callie’s face upward, she looks to the pendant hanging at her sunburnt chest. It glints in the midday sun, shining silver, and Calliope thinks she recognizes it. It hangs on a heavy chain, tarnished and rusted in spots. As the charm dangles from her neck, Calliope focuses on its shape. It’s nearly sun-bleached, the former color almost entirely washed away. She can still make it out, though. It’s scratched and faded, but it’s a little fridge magnet in the shape of a harlequin’s face.

     Something about it is important. But why is it important? And why does it make her feel so queasy? Calliope is so trained on the harlequin’s grinning face that she doesn’t resist when the woman raises her face with the end of her gun. The woman takes a deep breath in when she looks into Callie’s face, her bloodshot eyes widening with something like fear, something like reverence. The two of them lock eyes, and for the shortest fraction of a second, Callie thinks she sees a glossy, purple sheen pass over her irises. The woman throws herself backward, and Callie gasps – the sudden upward jerking of her weapon has left a scratch on her jaw.

     “It’s her!” she shouts. Not just to herself, but to her comrades. She points to Callie, and the band of wanderers shifts. “The Bard-Daughter, a Muse in the flesh!”
     “Bard-Daughter?” breathes one of them.
     “Bard-Daughter!” shouts another. 

     The woman moves forward to grab Calliope, but she withdraws her magnum and shoots. Her aim is off – she’s too scared to actually aim for anyone, so her shots land without fanfare in the sand. She staggers backward, not only because she’s afraid of the blonde woman, but from the pistol’s recoil, which she doesn’t remember being so severe in the past. 

     “Seize her! ” the woman cries.

     Jake and Dirk have already lunged forward to flank her on both sides. Jake raises his gaudy, gold-plated rifle and fires at the nomad’s feet with a rat-a-tat-tat , causing them to stumble and fall into the dunes. Dirk waits for the first cloaked vandal to approach, then sends their weapon soaring when his sword hooks into the magazine and flips it in the opposite direction. And while Callie’s aim sucks, her indiscriminate trigger-pulling is enough to cause her pursuers to falter. A few of them fall on their asses. One wanderer gets too close to the recuperating lusus, who is now very agitated with all of these noises. It bites them hard on the ankle, its spiky tail lashing in the sand.

     “Over the fence!” Dirk barks, “Jake, grab Callie!”
     “Ten-four!”
     Callie can barely yelp a “Wait –” before the Page takes her arm and flies over the barbed wire with her in tow.
     “You think you can hide from us, Bard-Daughter!” hollers the blonde woman from the other side of the fence. “You think you can avoid responsibility by burrowing away like a little sand-mite! Responsibility for this Waste of Wastes you’ve left us in!”
     “I’m afraid I have no clue what you’re talking about!” Callie shouts as the three of them scale the solar unit. “Clearly you’re all mad as hatters, and I think we shall have no further relations from here on out!”
     “You know what I speak of, Bard-Daughter!” she shouts. “This narrative Waste left in the void of your Brother’s body! You’ve let us freefall into nothing, into lowly hands without ambition nor direction, and you refuse to pick up the pen! You refuse to make right the ultimate Wrong!”
     Jake’s cleated boots skid across the warped, iridescent glass of the solar unit. They stand atop its slanted surface, looking down at all the angry little stick figures below. “What in the blue blazes is she on about?”
     “They’re familiar with the concept of Lord English,” Dirk says, “enough to generalize a cherub when they see one. What remains to be seen is who they mean by the ‘Bard.’ I think there’s a high probability that these people are just fucking insane from drinking cactus water all day.”     

     Calliope only frowns and keeps her thoughts to herself. The dune-dwellers pace about erratically, and she wonders fleetingly why they don’t simply shoot at them from below. Maybe killing them isn’t their goal, she wonders. Maybe they only want to capture them. 

     “Seeing as these blokes already know who we are,” she says, “perhaps it would be in our interest to simply make an aerial escape?”
     “That would certainly be a swell idea if it weren’t for their dastardly plot to shut down power to the whole of Earth C!” replies Jake. “If we flee now, we leave this entire friggin’ grid to their mercy.”
     “He’s got a point,” Dirk says. “It’s easy to write these guys off as run of the mill metal scrappers, but I think Immortan Josephina’s tirade suggests that their goal is a touch more underhanded.”
     Jake is busy beaming at Dirk’s reference, but Calliope shakes her head. “Are you referring to their deranged evangelism?”
     “I’d compare it more to a cult,” Jake says.
     “Same difference,” Dirk shrugs. “Listen, these dudes have beef with everyone on the planet just for being alive, which is probably why those chose a fuckin’ barren wasteland to camp out. For whatever reason, they want everyone else to suffer, too.”
     “Misery loves company,” agrees Jake with a nod of sagely wisdom.

     Down on the ground, Immortan Josephina is still hollering. They lean over the panel to listen.

     “You’ve no idea what you’ve done, Bard-Daughter, what you continue to do even now in the slime of your complicity! You’ve snipped us from the cord of relevance, left us drifting in the empty emptiness of fodder and fluff and wicked waste! None of this is real, Muse! Can you feel it? Can you feel the fakeness of it all, how we exist merely as words and pictures?”
     “She sounds like she truly believes what she’s saying,” Jake gulps. “What an awful way to look at life.”
     “I mean, we are just words and pictures,” Dirk says.
     “How do you mean?”
     “Uh, that’d take a while to explain, not sure that this is the venue.” Dirk pauses. “Hell, it won’t take that long. You remember longcat, right?”
     “You think that you’ve been freed, Muse, but you’re a marionette all the same! You’ve been dropped from one stage to another, with shadowy hands unfamiliar! The choice is yours, Bard-Daughter! The devil you know, or the devil you don’t!”
     Calliope cups her hands around her mouth. “If the devil I know is my brother,” she shouts, “I think I’ll take the latter!”
     “That’s right! Give ‘em hell, old girl!” cheers Jake.
     “If we insist on staying to fight for the sake of Earth C’s infrastructural integrity,” she says, “we must formulate an actionable plan to scatter these delusional scoundrels, preferably for an indefinite amount of time.”
     “I could always tear their souls out,” Dirk suggests.
     “Without killing them!” 
     Dirk gives her an I’m-out-of-ideas tilt of the head.
     “Oh, for heaven’s sake. If it’s me they’re after, the least I can offer them is a fight. Stay back, boys. I’ll show you that I can fight, too!”

     Dirk and Jake are already shouting for her to stop as she leaps from the blazing-hot metal surface of the solar panel. She lands hard on her taloned feet, still protected by the other side of the electric fence, and once more withdraws her ivory magnum. This time, though, she allows it to take its second form. With a whisk of her wrist, the metal sifts into another shape, the slender and sharp edge of a proper wizard’s wand. It’s easier to wield this way, and it should still have a few bullets to spare. 

     Calliope cocks the wand and aims for one of her lackey’s feet, enough to immobilize them but not end their life. She misses, but the bullet finds a target nevertheless, because magic can be real when it’s convenient for it to be. The blonde woman crumples to the sand on one knee, and the sand beneath her leg darkens red.

     “Oh shoot!” Calliope says. “I mean, curses! Oh, dear, that pun was unintended!”
     The woman howls with pain. “So the wicked little bitch rebukes her nature!” she spits. “She rejects even her own father, who might have paved another way to victory for his last child!”
     Calliope frowns. “I really think you must have me confused with someone else, or perhaps you’ve heard some nasty rumor about me. I really have no clue what you’re talking about!”
     The woman clutches her shin, all caked in sand and seeping blood. When she glares at Calliope, she sees it again – a violet sheen across her eyes, a flicker of abnormal color. “Don’t just stand around, you stupid motherfucking weasels!” she screams at the others. “Grab her!”

     The rest of her party lurches forward and begin to throw themselves at the fence. Calliope looks on, horrified, as the metal buzzes with flashes of electricity. They’re getting electrocuted, but they don’t stop climbing. Their muscles tremble and twitch as they hoist themselves over the fence, even as the barbed wire gets caught on their clothing, even as it tears gashes in their skin. They plop to the other side with all the fanfare of a rotten apple falling from the tree. When they stand, shaking and shambling, Callie can see the purple glimmer in their eyes. Thuds in the sand behind her as Dirk and Jake leap to join her.

     “Jesus,” Dirk sighs with a shake of his head, “We really underestimated these guys. Also, you gotta fix your self-preservation skills, Callie.”
     “I told you I can fight!” she protests. “I can handle this myself!”
     “And have us watch you put your life on the line? Fat chance!” Jake scoffs. A purple-eyed wanderer lurches at him, and he hits him across the face with the butt of his pistol. “Let’s get rid of ‘em together, as a proper team!”
     Calliope’s heart swells. “Oh, Jake, d’you mean it?”
     “Yeah, he means it, and I mean it too,” Dirk says curtly. “Not to be brusque with you, but the numbers are not on our side.”
     “Roger that!” shouts Jake. “Go, team!”

     Thus the fight begins. Let’s take a moment here to pause. Yes, pause. Fight scenes are boring, anyway. Let’s face it, everyone is moving in every direction and it’s impossible to imagine just what’s happening and it takes up entirely too much space. You’re imagining them fighting, right? Three Originators versus a couple dozen humans intent on destroying a bastion of Earth C’s environmental conscientiousness. Yeah, you can imagine it. Let’s allow them to fight for a bit. And let’s talk about fighting.

     Is fighting fun? Is it good? Most people in this story will answer in the negative. Jake does not like fighting. He likes to look brave, he likes for others to think he can protect them. Shooting things, much less living things, is not fun to him. Fighting is not fun for Calliope, either. If it were, she might be living a different life right now. She might be a nebulous corpse in the final death roll of a narrative deadspace, swallowing the vacuous remains of what was once her brother, the beast called Authorship. But she’s not. She’s followed her dearest friends into a new universe full of potential and life and fabulous wonders she could never begin to imagine, and when she thinks of her ideal future in this marvelous place, she doesn’t see herself fighting these poor, scrappy vagrants who lunge and jerk and snatch at her like floppy puppets on a string. Well, what about Dirk? Dirk has a complicated relationship with fighting. When your entire world amounts to under 1,100 square feet of apartment and a violet moon where you must squirrel yourself away to survive, you get antsy. You want something to do. You want to feel like something you’re doing amounts to anything at all. Growing up antsy is hard to shake, even when you’ve left the Ultimate Battle behind you. And fighting is something

     Fighting can be noble. It can protect people, like Dirk is protecting his friends now. Protecting Calliope, who is smaller than him, more sensitive, more innocent. Protecting Jake, who is. Hm. Maybe come back to that one later? Fighting is something you do when you have nothing left to do at all. So here we are.

     During all of that navel-gazing, the fight has continued on with much shooting and wand-whisking and sword-clashing in their fraught struggle for control – both of the solar tower and of Calliope. Jake is walloping the living daylights out of someone who managed to graze Callie’s sleeve with their stun gun. Dirk is tied neck-and-neck with a Waste-dweller who blocks his sword with the brunt of their bayonet. Collapsed bodies lie in the sand around them, those too tired to continue, or who have been mercifully knocked out. The blonde woman on the other side of the fence has passed out from blood loss. Now it’s more of a fair fight. 

     “Get –  back!” Callie yells at a wanderer who seizes her wrist. 
     “Why do you fight it, Bard-Daughter?” she says in a hollow voice. It’s empty and emotionless, like someone reading off a script. “Why do you fail to do what is right?”
     Calliope jabs her white wand into her assailant’s gut. “Unhand me, you absolute nutcase!”
     “You could follow in his footsteps, you could save us from this listless wandering,” she mutters, “How we shamble on without rhyme or reason, no plot to drive us, no author to command us. We are afterthoughts of an afterthought, crumbs in the trash bin of an uncaring god.”
     “What author? We’re just people, we aren’t in a storybook!”
     The woman looks sad. Her eyes shine with a bright and vivid purple. “You could’ve understood, if you wanted to.”

     Her grip on Callie’s wrist tightens, and she sees with horror that the woman is reaching up to push the Ring of Life from her finger. The ring that keeps her corporeal, the ring that keeps her whole, the ring that Roxy gave her. Calliope yelps, and in reaction to her sudden movement, the white wand fires a bullet directly into the woman’s side. But she doesn’t let go, just makes a wet, gurgling noise and continues to struggle for the Ring. Calliope can feel herself being backed into the base of the solar unit, and as far as she stretches her arm, she’s still very short. The woman has the height advantage over her, and her sweaty palm is starting to push the Ring up her finger.

     “Boys!” she shouts, “A little help over here, please!”

     Both Jake and Dirk turn to see what’s happening. Jake immediately drops the knocked out Waste-dweller he’s been whaling on, and Dirk shoves his opponent with the brunt of his sword and lands a kick on their chest. Jake moves behind them and gives them a sharp hit to the back of the skull, and they crumple in a pile on the ground. 

     “I’ve got ya, Callie!” Jake cries. 

     He comes ‘round to the other side of the woman – now bleeding profusely –  and tries to pull her off of Callie. It’s a useless game of tug-of-war, though, and the woman doesn’t budge. He grasps her own wrist to wrestle her grip off of Calliope, but that doesn’t work either.  

     “Dirk, you give it a shot!” says Jake, “I’ll try from the other side!”

     Jake lunges behind Calliope before she can thud against the solar unit. Covering her hand with his own, he tries to push the Ring back down her finger. The competition between the three of them for control just seems to make things worse, however. Dirk takes a “bad cop” approach to wrestling the woman away. He places her in a chokehold with the edge of the katana pressed to her throat.

     “I really hate to do this,” he grunts, “I know it doesn’t make me look great, but I’m gonna need you to get your grubby hands off my friend.”

     The woman doesn’t give any response at all. It’s as though the blade doesn’t even register to her, like all that matters is that she retrieve the Ring, as though it’s enough for her just to make the ghost of Calliope’s ghost fade into nothing. Dirk grimaces. He really doesn’t want to behead some random woman. She’s badly injured, and not of sound mind, either. He really, really doesn't want to be the bad guy here.

     “Dude!” Dirk barks to Jake. “This lady’s on one, man. I’m feelin’ like I gotta take drastic measures.”
     “Do what you must!” Jake barks. “Whatever it is, do it before we sandwich Callie to death!”
     “Don’t–” puffs Callie, “–mind me! I’m okay!”

     There’s a twinge that happens just now in the back of Dirk’s mind. It’s like the sensation one feels when they suspect they’re being watched, whether by another person or a darknet webcam. It’s a twitch of Heart, the feeling that there is another stirring soul lurking just nearby. He focuses on the feeling and tries to identify it. It’s gritty and sandy, metallic and acidic. Who else could it be – it’s the blonde woman, who has risen from the sand to join the fray. As soon as he identifies her soul, she materializes behind him.

     “Struggling like sand-mites,” she hisses. “Weasels twisting about in their own shit. The time has come to end this.”

     She grabs both of Dirk’s hands, but she’s not trying to rescue her fellow wanderer from his sword. She’s trying to kill him at her comrade’s expense. Calliope looks on in horror as the woman presses the sword forward, slitting the throat of the girl wrestling for her Ring. The girl doesn’t fight even as blood stains her teeth and dribbles down the front of her cloak. 

     “Oh, no,” Calliope whispers.
     “Dirk,” Jake says, “everything okay on your end?”
     Dirk falters. “Uh, well….”
     The girl’s grip on Callie slackens, but she’s still holding onto the Ring. Jake is able to slip it down Calliope’s finger. “Bro, you all right?”
     “Uh, keep your distance, dude,” Dirk replies. “There’s gonna be a little splashback.” 

     This next part all happens very quickly. First, the blonde woman jerks the sword forward, severing the girl’s neck. The violet sheen in her eyes sputters out, and her head falls before Calliope’s feet. Calliope shrieks, and when the dead girl’s hand releases her, she falls backward into Jake’s chest. The two of them thud against the solar unit and fall into the sand. Without the girl’s neck between the sword and Dirk, nothing can protect him.

     This situation can only end one way. There’s no other choice. She’s going to have to decapitate him.

     The third time is not so bad, probably because this woman has beheaded more than one rube in her life. It’s very swift. Dirk sucks in a breath the way that a seasoned patron of a piercing establishment does when they are getting a new stud in their ear. She yanks the sword forward, and he allows her to do it. His head falls to the sand.

     Jake’s reaction is sudden and violent. 

     “No !” he shouts, and the flash of Hope that leaves him almost knocks Calliope across the sand. She sinks her claws into his cloak to prevent the pulsing wave of brilliant white from hurtling her away. It seeps from his eyes, from his mouth, from his skin, and the shockwave blasts in all directions, the eye of the storm of his Aspect. The iguana lusus can be heard lowing as it rolls further down the dune, carried by Hope’s reverberation. 
     “Jake!” Calliope cries, “Jake, you have to get a hold of yourself!”

     But her words don’t reach him. Whatever’s started can’t be stopped until the tap’s run out, and she has no choice but to wait it out. She huddles into his chest and clutches his collar to protect herself, and allows the blazing flames of Hope to continue their onslaught. The sound it makes is high-pitched and warbling. It has a whistle to it, like firecrackers shooting across someone’s yard. It’s loud, and it’s intense, and it has a warmth to it that’s weighted and comforting, like many hands pressing down on her skin, almost enough to make her forget the two terrible beheadings she was just made to witness. And as any storm does, Jake’s outburst starts to sputter out. The haze leaves his eyes, the last puff of Hope escapes his mouth, and he slumps against the metal pole.

     “Jake,” Calliope says, shaking his collar, “Jake, can you hear me?”
     He pauses for a long time, his breath very shallow, and then he answers. “Yes, Callie,” he pants. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”
     “Whatever could you be sorry for?” 
     Jake slowly shakes his head. He looks utterly exhausted. “What… was that, just now?”
     “I think you unscrewed the lid on your Pagely powers, my friend.”

     Jake allows himself a half-hearted laugh and rubs his bleary eyes. Calliope pulls him to his feet, and they examine the aftermath of his Hopesplosion. All traces of the wanderers have been wiped from the scene. The bodies are gone, their rusty vehicle is gone, their weapons are gone – everything. Only Dirk is left behind. His head lies not far from his body, splayed quite inelegantly.

     “Well,” Calliope sighs. She wipes a tear from her eye. “It looks like we will have inform Dave that his brother lost their bet.”
     Jake stares blankly. “Callie. Do you think it was heroic?”
     “Do I think Dirk’s death was heroic?”
     “Yeah.”
     She frowns. “I suppose… we will just have to wait and see.”

     So they sit beside each other, Jake holding on to Calliope’s hand for a small shred of comfort, and they wait for the jury’s verdict. Ten minutes go by. Then fifteen. When the heavy weight pressing down on Jake’s chest starts to become unbearable, the edges of Dirk’s corpse light up with a bubbly, incandescent sheen. Colors swirl and pop and seep, enveloping both parts of his mortal remains, and stringy strands of rainbow, nebulous goop drag his head towards his neck. In no time at all, Dirk is stitched back together again. He lies gasping on the ground, patting his hand over his neck and chest. 

     “Dirk!” Jake and Calliope yell in unison. They lunge forward to squash Dirk in a group hug, and he flops helplessly in their combined grasp.
     “Guys,” he gasps, “if you’re fixing to crack a rib, you’re halfway there.”
     “Sorry, so sorry!” Calliope yelps. They release him, and Calliope rests her hands in her lap. “What did you see while you were on the other side, Dirk? Did you see the dream bubbles? Did you see the edges of Paradox Space itself?”
     Dirk gapes at her, and slowly shakes his head. “No. I just saw nothing. A whole lot of nothing.”
     “Nothing at all?” Jake asks.
     “Nothing, dude.”
     “Wait, why are we discussing this?” Jake shouts with a flurry of his hands. “That was the stupidest fucking thing I think you’ve ever done, Dirk! Do you know how close you came to being forever nixed by the fate of Heroism?”
     “Nah, I was safe. I let her do it, so it wasn’t really heroic at all. I think I’d have to put up more of a fight for that to be the case.” He looks around. “On another note, I see you got rid of our pests.”
     “He Hoped them away,” Calliope explains. “It was absolutely amazing.”
     “Yeah, I figured he would.” Dirk rubs his neck. “I wish I could’ve been conscious to see it, though. Good work, Jake. I knew you had it in you.”

     Jake gawks at Dirk with his eyebrows knitted in an angry furrow that Dirk knows too well. He’s about to get reamed.

     “Sorry, you got beheaded on purpose?”
     “That’s right. Kind of the price to pay for getting that lady’s mitts off of Callie.”
     “And how did you think we were going to deal with that insane woman who beheaded you?” Calliope asks.
     “I’ll admit that part relied a lot on ‘what-ifs.’ I sorta hinged it on the presumption that Jake would Hope-splode her away. Either way, it was two against one. I had faith one of you would be able to take her down.”
     “You triggered that on purpose!” Jake shouts.
     Dirk frowns. “Look, I know this makes me look like an asshole, and I won’t deny that, but–”
     “No shit it does!” Jake’s eyes gloss over with tears as he starts to chew him out. “You’re always doing this! You’re always moving us around as the pawns in your idiotic, ill-conceived schemes that you think you’re so clever for devising, and thinking that us, the poor little people who couldn’t hope to understand the 4-D chess you’re playing in that unfathomable head of yours, ought to just play along and be grateful that you rescued us! Well, let me tell you something, Dirk, you might not care if you get your head sliced off in front of your friends, but we do, and I’d sure appreciate having a choice in the matter!”

     Jake pauses to wipe the corner of his eye. Calliope pats him on the shoulder, and Dirk simply stares. Right about now, he’s wondering how long Jake has been swallowing all of that resentment. 

     “I’m… sorry, Jake, I was just trying to–”
     “I know! I know! I know you think you’re helping, and that your life doesn’t matter as much as ours do, and that you can jerk us about and save us from ourselves and sacrifice your own skull for the hell of it all. But Jesus, Mary, and fucking Joseph, Dirk, it’s high time to retire that fucking bit. It’s getting entirely too old.”
     Calliope tries to calm him down. “Well, Jake, I agree that I would have rather avoided watching two people be decapitated, but Dirk did do his part in ensuring my safety. I don’t know why those strange people wanted my Ring, but I’m thankful that I didn’t lose it. Thank you for helping me.”
     “Of course, Callie,” Dirk says. “We can’t have you poofing from existence on us. We’d be the worst fuckin’ friends a cherub could ask for.”
     Jake just shakes his head. “I wonder why it was that they were so preoccupied with you.”
     “Maybe she resembles their desert god,” Dirk suggests.
     Calliope spins the Ring around and around on her finger. “Maybe. Say, Dirk, did you still have your heart set on dismantling one of these machines?”
     Dirk sighs and looks up the length of the solar tower. “You know, I think I’ve been wholly turned off from the idea. Maybe in a couple decades. For now, I think we should probably hoof it.”

 

     So they do. The three of them hop the fence and walk back the way they came, back towards civilization, where plant life grows and the sun is not so determined to broil you alive. Calliope is tired, but happy to be alive. Jake has tuckered himself out with anger, but is just glad that he didn’t lose any of his friends forever. And Dirk is feeling very humble, and is chewing his lip trying to think of a hundred different ways to approach Jake later with a proper apology. Because despite the small, subtle ways in which their relationship has morphed and changed and split, Jake is still Dirk’s best bro. He would prefer not to further traumatize him with additional grisly deaths.

     As they tread across the sand, Calliope sighs and links her arms with Jake’s and Dirk’s. They don’t protest, because she’s their friend, and they love her, and they’re determined to find some time, some era, some place where they can all be happy together. It probably won’t be this era, but maybe the next one. Wherever or whenever they end up, though, it probably won’t be in the Western Wastes.

Chapter Text

 


The following tale was passed on to Symposium members who endured a brief but culturally significant treaty with the nomads of the Western Wastes circa 4840. Numerous but vague stories of the Bard were dictated to the Symposium’s scribes during this time, and their authenticity is often contested. Certain details deemed indecent and heretical have been expunged or edited. See the appendix for additional notes.

 

     For as long as the Mother Grub could brood and wigglers could spin their own cocoons, for as long as the spring followed the winter and the Skaian Ocean split the planet with its waves, there was the Western Wastes. A hot an unforgiving place, it failed to grow any life at all. The sand was dry and arid, and throughout the centuries, many foolish farmers attempted to settle it. But the trees that were planted here simply withered and died, even when they were planted along the Gulf, where they might receive spraying seafoam from time to time. In ancient times, exiles were sent to live out their days in the Wastes until their skeletons were buried in the dunes, so the Wastes became known to all as the world’s graveyard.

     However, there was a roving kingdom in the sand that traveled by night and hid during the day, and these mysterious people were feared by those who dwelt on the other side of the Wasting Run River. They were a people who pledged allegiance to no Sphere but their own crew, who worshiped no Originator and followed no rites nor rituals. Lawless was their loose society, avoiding even the sunlight itself, and in their chariots of scrap metal and spare parts they scuttled under the dunes like common sand-mites. These were the Nomads who followed the Bard, and in every way gave up their lives to his capricious will.

     At the beginning of all things, the Bard’s Casket washed up along the shore of what is now the Bard’s Gulf, and after many days and many nights, the Bard broke free from his coffin and attracted a number of followers. Some were drawn to him because he was something akin to an Originator, and knew much about his fellow gods that were not detailed in the Seer’s tome. Others were swayed by his chucklevoodoos. The Bard found the barren Wastes to his liking, and decided that it would forever remain the seat of his new kingdom. The Nomads would be his subjects, and would serve as his eyes and ears when he could not be everywhere at once.

     This was the state of the Western Wastes for many centuries. The Bard was content with the span of his kingdom, and enjoyed having his Nomads spar with the Four Spheres at the edges of the desert. One day, however, it came to be that his subjects approached the Bard with news that confounded and intrigued him. The Muse of Space, his last remaining child, had been spotted in the Wastes. She was joined by her bodyguards, and sought in her righteousness to protect the means of energy harvesting that the Four Spheres had established. The Bard was tickled by this development. He sent a chariot of his foot soldiers to seek out the Muse.

– Bring the beast to me, the bitch, the battle-axe, and I will sort her out, announced the Bard. He stood to tower over the Nomads, nearly five and twenty hands tall, and commanded them to search for her. They left at once, and the search for the Muse of Space began.

     The search did not last long, though, for the Muse made no attempt to hide herself. Shortly the Nomads came across the Muse. Sure enough, she had traveled to the edges of the Waste, where the Four Spheres established their means of harvesting the sunlight from the sand. 

     Many times had the Nomads attacked these towers, for it was the will of the Bard that the descendents of his former companions live low, mean lives. The Four Spheres pleaded with their Originators to rescue their source of energy from constant assault, and the Muse agreed to take up the task of vanquishing the threat. When the Nomads found her, she was cloaked in a long, black robe that shielded her from the sun, so that she appeared like a shadowy mirage among the dunes. 

– Muse, your presence is demanded in the Waste of Wastes, said the foremost among them, a warrioress who was battle-scarred and seared red with the relentless sun.
And who might it be that makes a demand of the Muse? replied she.
–  The Bard has sent us to collect his remaining child, that she might atone for her grievous sins against him.

     At this, her two bodyguards drew their weapons. The Page of Hope and Prince of Heart had come along to protect the Muse in her travels, and they were angered to hear their friend spoken to with disrespect.

– So you are the thieves who dismantle the towers of the sun, growled the Prince, causing much fuss and despair for the people of this world. And you have the nerve to dare make a command of an Originator?
–  Such heresy will not stand, said the Page, and we shall make quick work of you if you fail to disperse.
The Muse lifted her hand. Be at peace, my friends. I believe our acquaintances are mistaken, perhaps delirious in this scorching sunlight. For I have no business with the Bard, be it that he has survived at all.
The warrioress cackled. Why yes, the Bard lives at the heart of the Waste, and he seeks your audience alone. Could it be that the Muse forgets the one who reared her, who allowed her to thrive alongside the Brother she struck down?
Now the Muse was irritated. I am not my Brother’s keeper, and I am responsible for no failing of his. His fall was of his own hubris, and the tie between us forever severed. Whatever this false Bard desires from me, I will have no part in it.

     The Nomads were not content with this. It so happened that during this exchange, the Bard had been watching through the eyes of his followers, and could see for himself how his last cherubic child had spurned him. He was incensed. If she would not take her Brother’s place as Lord of all, if she would not fill the void left by the Lord of Time, he would strike her from the plane of the living altogether. With a great clap of his hands, the Bard bade his followers to strike the Ring of Life from the Muse’s finger.

     At once, the Nomads flung themselves upon the Originators. The Muse was quick and nimble, however, and was swift to disarm her attackers with the White Wand she carried at her hip. As she defeated them with her magyyks, the Page and Prince defended the Muse from the rest of the band. The Prince slashed and struck with his Unbreakable Blade, and the Page bested the Nomads who sought to get near the Muse. 

–  Cease your struggling, Muse, barked the fierce warrioress, what the Bard wills he shall always receive. The time has come for you to pay for what you have done.
–  Might I ask, my friend, what it is that I have done?
–  You have survived.

     Throughout his time wandering the Wastes, the Bard imbibed the most loyal of his followers with powers beyond the capabilities of the human Sphere. With his chucklevoodoos of the ancient, long-gone purplebloods, he granted them with strange and unnatural abilities. They were slow to exhaust, tireless and tenacious, and would stop at nothing until their foes were conquered. So the Muse and her company found that when they struck down one of their enemies, another simply rose from the sand, battered but undefeated. 

     The Muse considered as she fought her opponents that if the Bard was to blame for inciting these people to attack the infrastructure of their fellow Spheres, that she must break the psychic stranglehold he had upon them. The Muse was unfamiliar with the realms of Mind and Heart, which might have assisted in such a goal. So she enlisted the help of her entourage to accomplish it.

Brother Page and Brother Prince, these people know not what they’ve dedicated their lives to. In order to free them, we must slash the chains across their souls. Will you help me?
A noble cause, Sister Muse, said the Page, and I will assist you as well as I might. He fought off two more Nomads who lifted themselves to lurch at him. What would you have us do?
  I would have the Prince lift their souls from their bodies, that the Page may cleanse them of the Bard’s ability to bend them to his will. 
–  It will be difficult for me to keep their spirits suspended from the mortal vessel, said the unsure Prince, but if it be your wish, I will make an attempt.

     Thus the Prince sheathed his Blade and enlisted the powers of Heart to tear the souls from their attackers. There was a great bloodcurdling shriek from the lot of them as their spirits tore from their bodies. Even the Bard, from his faraway standpoint, was able to feel a shadow of the immense pain they endured. Yet his pain subsided quickly, for he was no longer able to witness the scene from their eyes. The souls of his followers were connected to their frames by a mere string, and the Prince struggled not to sever them entirely, for the Muse was averse to murder of any kind, whether justified or no.

Their souls are taken from them, grunted the Prince, Page, I leave it in your hands.
–  Right away, cried the Page. 

     He felt the coursing of Hope in his veins, the brilliant, unstoppable force immune even to the Witch’s might. The Page focused all of his desire on freeing these people from the purple tyrant who puppeted them like mere pawns. From his palms he cast the full might of his Aspect, and the Nomads were awash with its blinding light. They could neither struggle nor scream, for their souls were suspended above them by gossamer strings. As Hope faded, they collapsed in the hot sand. The Prince gently lowered their spirits back into their bodies, and they gasped and panted for breath.

–  This is insanity , panted the warrioress as she fought for air. It is as if the surface of my mind has been shaved clean, raw and bleeding as a newborn. 
–  Stand, little one, bade the Muse, and come with us to the other side of the Wastes. You need not squander your life where flora nor fauna thrives, you may join the other Spheres in happiness and leisure.

     The warrioress groaned and clutched her head, which throbbed with a terrible aching. The Muse looked on at them pityingly, at their pain and their melancholy, and began to feel rage stirring inside of her. The Bard, whether he be Bard or no, had enticed them to this nasty and brutish life, and he controlled them in both body and mind. She sympathized with the Nomads, as she had lived a similar life in her early years. Their pain was hers. Finally, the warrioress found her bearings and sat up in the dunes, blinking in the harsh daylight.

–  We shall never follow you, Muse, said she to the Muse’s great dismay, and we shall never allow you to escape.

     The Muse stood, shocked, as the woman lunged at her, her hunting dagger held tight in her fist. She would fail to dodge her in time, she would be gutted by this madwoman – of this the Muse was certain. Suddenly, though, the Prince leapt to her defense. Pushing the Muse out of the way, the Prince gasped as the warrioress sliced his head from his shoulders. It rolled lifelessly across the sand, and his body leaked crimson red in every direction.

–  Wretched wastrels, bastards and thieves! roared Page. He sunk to hold the Prince’s limp cadaver in his arms, his blood seeping over his hands. Page and Muse both began to shed tears for the Prince, who was selfless until the end.
–  Will you fight us, Page, or mourn your Prince? asked the Nomad.
The Page was filled with fury. Standing, he clenched his bloody fists. You will suffer for what you have done, he cried, and seized the woman by the throat. 

     The Prince’s blood was smeared across her skin, and at once she began to convulse. It was as though she had been poisoned, as if some terrible potion had robbed her of her faculties. The blood worked its way into her skin, disappearing like vanishing ink, and the Page was amazed to find that her pulse had stopped entirely. The Prince’s blood, even in death, had melted the connection between her soul and her body. She was an empty husk. Astonished, the Page released her and let the hollow body crumple in the sand. 

     Her comrades were speechless. They looked to the Page’s bloodied hands and were afraid of falling victim to the Prince’s blood. As they turned to flee, the Muse dipped her wizard’s Wand in the red sand and imbued it with his power of Heart. The Nomads continued to run, and she cast her Wand at their feet. Three of the Nomads were stricken with her spell, and fell to the ground as though their puppet strings had been snipped. Those who managed to escape fled to the Bard, who would thoroughly scourge them for their failure.

     Thus the Muse was left with her bodyguards. She knelt to clasp the Prince to her chest, and gently used her magyyks to stitch his head to his body. After some time, the Prince was kissed with the touch of Skaia’s clock, and was permitted to breathe among the living once more. Skaia had not judged his death a heroic one, as he had intended to raise his sword to the Nomads and failed. Page and Muse wept with joy to have their Prince revived. The Nomads had not been defeated that day, but Page and Prince decided for the welfare of their friend that the Muse not return. They would deal with the solar vandals another day, and the Muse would keep her distance from the ancient Bard.



     And so it was that the Originators departed from the Western Wastes. For a time, the Nomads were afraid to attack the field of solar towers, and the Four Spheres were grateful to the Originators for quelling the assault on their livelihood. The fate of the Bard, however, is written in neither storybook nor scripture. Many still swear that he lurks in the heart of the Wastes, puppeteering his subjects and bidding them to commit terrible acts. Others believe that the Bard sank in the Gulf inside his chained coffin, and that the Wastes are populated merely by exiles and prisoners. Whether the Bard be man or myth, Wastes shall retain his name for the rest of time immemorial. For his name alone is enough to ward off the sensible and the shrewd.



 

The end.

Chapter Text

     The year 4766 is temperate, cool, and comfortable for the amateur hiker. 

 

 

     The Lesser Consort Sanctuarium is one of two vast swaths of land known together as the Consort Sanctuaria. If Roxy had to compare it to something from the Old Earth, it would be sort of akin to a national park. The other three Spheres don’t often tread here. They leave the consorts to their own devices, free to build their adorable little amphibian villages out in the forests and the mountains. Zeppelins fly overhead exceedingly rarely, and the ambient noise of croaking frogs and twittering songbirds and babbling brooks can be heard all around. A tiny wooden sign is stuck along the hiking trail, illegible to Calliope, but readable for Roxy and Jasprose, who both had turtles as their consorts. Littering is strictly prohibited on this trail. 

     These three ladies are on a hike to a tiny settlement detailed on a faded old map. It is called Beadedbrook. It’s populated by turtles and iguanas, mostly, who occupy themselves with ceramics and fine beadwork – as the name suggests. Calliope was very keen on the idea of watching consorts do fine arts and crafts with their fins and claws and webbed toes, and Roxy is keen on whatever causes Calliope’s face to light up with excitement. 

     Jasprose came along to atone for her atrocious behavior in South Mariana, which Calliope doesn’t seem to mind. Roxy wishes, though, that Jazz would stop referring to herself as a “third wheel.” It’s embarrassing. She feels like a forty-five year old divorcee whose teenaged son is suspicious of the new beau she’s started dating. Not that they’re dating. Or are they? Roxy decides that this issue is too complicated to contemplate right now, right in the middle of pinpointing a future home.

     “Oh, Roxy, don’t you wish you could stay here forever?” Calliope sighs happily. “Everything is so lush and green and peaceful and quiet… I just want to flop into that flowerbed and never get up!”
     “Don’t flop there, kitten,” Jasprose snickers, “that there’s poison ivy.”
     “What’s poison ivy?”
     “It’s a very special kind of catnip that gives you a giggle-fit. You rub it on your skin to make you laugh.”
     “Really?” Calliope asks. She moves to touch one of the leaves growing along the path, and Roxy gently guides her hand away.

     Calliope is recovering well from her ordeal in the Western Wastes. Roxy just about passed out when she learned that Jake and Dirk were the thin, barely competent line keeping her from utter obliteration. They’re as far from the Wastes as one can be now – half a planet away, in a far-off hemisphere – and the residents here are much more hospitable. The three girls turn a corner ‘round the tall birch trees, and Jasprose spots a nakodile waddling down the trail.

     “Hey, a yokel!” she purrs. 

     Jasprose throws up a toe-beaned hand and waves to the nakodile. It’s carrying a wicker basket on its back, strapped across its chest with scraps of leather. It offers a friendly chitter-chattering nak-nak-nak and toddles past them.

     “What an adorable fellow,” Calliope says. “Look at all the little vegetables in his basket!”
     “I heard ‘round these parts consorts don’t like to be fawned over,” Jasprose says. She chews her gum loudly. “They find it patronizing.”
     “Oh! Well, do they understand human language? Is it bad to call them cute?”
     “I think it’s less about the verbage and more about your tone,” Roxy muses. “You don’t gotta be fluent in English to know when someone’s callin’ you a cutie patootie snookum-wookums.”

     Up ahead, there’s another wooden post in the soil. It stands comically short at only two feet tall. Beadedbrook, it reads, ¼ mile ahead.

     “Hey, we should be coming up on the village right about now,” Roxy notes.
     “Now that you mention it, I’m starting to pick up on all the noise.”

 

     They hike up the remaining length of the trail, and shortly come upon a fence that looks like it’s strung together with wood fiber and sticks. It’s been sanded down and painted many colors, with tiny handprints adorning it. The three of them could step over it easily, but this would probably be impolite and thoroughly frowned upon. So Roxy leans to ring a little chiming bell that hangs from a cord tied to a branch. A snoring turtle snorts itself awake beside the gate.

     “What’s up, Buttercup?” Jasprose asks. Her bubblegum pops across her face, and she laps it up with her bristled tongue.
     “Three out-of-Sphere visitors at Beadedbrook gate,” the turtle murmurs in its nearly inaudible, nervous whisper. “A crown a head for travel tax.”

     It taps a tiny, dinged-up tin can, assuming that the three of them don’t understand its language. The tin is rusted and old, and the price tag on it is written with flaking paint. Roxy produces three shiny crowns from her pocket and lets the coins fall into the tin. Travel tax is something they researched before traversing the Sanctuaria – in order to maintain their independence, consort settlements often collect fees from the other Spheres that pass through. It’s not so much an economic necessity so much as it bolsters their dignity. 

     The turtle nods its head and yanks a pulley that allows the gate to crank open. The three pass through, and immediately find themselves in the town square of Beadedbrook village.

     Imagine for a moment that you are Lemuel Gulliver on the isle of Lilliput, if that was ever a required text in the place you were school-fed. Now, none of our friends here are particularly tall. Rose Lalonde is a shrimp of a woman, and being prototyped with a housecat has made Jasprose positively impish. Calliope is a bit shorter than average, but she’s slender for a skeleton, and a stiff wind could knock her over. Roxy stands one to two heads taller than both of them, and at this time she feels like a giant. Everything in Beadedbrook is in miniature. Buildings are too small to enter, shop stalls and gardens look fragile and delicate. Most of the consorts who spare them passing glances come up to their knees, but a taller iguana reaches Calliope’s waist. Roxy is afraid that if she takes a step forward, she will break something.

     Calliope presses her hands to her chest. “Oh, Jasprose, why did you have to go and tell me that it’s rude to call them cute?” Her glossy eyes are shining with unshed tears.
     “Hey, I warned you in the interest of being woke,” Jasprose shrugs. “What, you think this sophisticated society they’ve built out here is precious? You think consorts developing their own sovereign land is adorable? You think their itty bitty tools and tiny-whiny postal services and eensie-weensie thatched huts are baby?”
     “Yes!” Callie cries with a stamp of her foot. “I think all of that!”
     Roxy rubs Callie’s shoulder. “Don’t let her tell you what is and isn’t adorable, Callie. This village is downright teddy bear-squeezin’, baby bib-wearin’, stick-a-lollipop-in-my-mouth-and-call-me-Junior precious. Look at that!” She points to an iguana who’s writing on a little chalkboard sign with an even littler nub of chalk. “You can’t beat that! It’s so sweet I just wanna shave my whole head about it!”
     The iguana shoots Roxy a withering look.

 

     Beadedbrook might have miniature infrastructure, but the dirt roads are wide to accommodate vehicles and larger visitors. As they walk down the main street, they scoot to provide passage for an iguana-drawn buggy. The wagon is made of bamboo shoots and straw, and in lieu of a pony, the iguana is tugging the reins of a fat beaver. Calliope’s eyes well with tears, and she buries her face in Roxy’s arm. And Roxy lets her do it, even when Jasprose waggles her eyebrows at her for blushing. Fleetingly, she wonders if this would be considered a date in the absence of her cat-daughter.

     They pass storefronts selling ceramics and fruit, and an open air kitchen where a turtle in a chef’s hat serves chunky stew to chattering, squawking, thipping and nakking customers. One of the stalls is manned by a wrinkled iguana who sells terracotta jewelry. Her wares are unusual, painted in bold patterns and strung with black cord. Calliope is eyeing a bright green necklace dotted with black and white, examining the beads with her taloned hands. Roxy is about to buy it for her, but Jasprose materializes behind her and points to a sign beside them.

     “Check it out,” she says, “Beadedbrook has a mew-seum.”
     “That’s odd. I don’t recall reading about it in our research,” Calliope wonders aloud.
     “Looks like this is a traveling museum,” clarifies Roxy as she reads the sign. It’s written in turtle language, albeit sloppily. “‘Come see the limited time display of the Amulet of Ages, housed in Beadedbrook Community Hall. Free to the public.’ It’s just an exhibit, then.”
     “That still sounds fun!” Calliope says. She claps her hands. “‘Amulet of Ages’ has a ring to it, doesn’t it? Like something right out of a storybook.”
     “My thoughts exactly, Tootsie Roll,” Jasprose says.
     “Will we fit in the Hall, though?” Roxy asks. Her hand is still on her wallet.
     Jasprose’s tail flicks. “Only one way to find out.”

     And so the trio moves on to their next generation. When Calliope turns her back, Roxy moves to give the elderly iguana a handful of crowns for the green necklace. She’s already fallen asleep in her seat, though. Roxy drops the coins into a dish and carries the jewelry off in her pocket.

 

     Beadedbrook Community Hall turns out to be bigger than they imagined. Every now and then, you can find a village in the Sanctuaria that encourages tourism from the other Spheres. Such settlements will then attract said tourists by providing architecture that’s actually suited for their statures. As the tallest of the bunch, Roxy still has to duck her head to pass through the rounded archway. 

     Inside, the Hall is warm and smokey. There’s a hole in the thatched ceiling to allow firepit smoke to escape, and the walls are lined with lanterns of colored glass. There’s a hushed echoing that floats through the space and makes the hair on Roxy’s arms and neck stand up. Quiet, mumbling thip-thipping of iguanas can be heard – the acoustics are awesome. In the middle of the Hall there lies a glass display case shining with all the light bouncing off its surface. The Amulet of Ages in person, whatever that means. Roxy can’t make it out from where they stand.

     There’s a turtle manning the entrance who gives the trio a kind nod and a parchment brochure of information. It’s written in the same variation of hieroglyphs that used to line the pyramids of Roxy’s planet. 

     An iguana waddles up to a broad platform in the center of the room and speaks into an improvised megaphone made of paper and glue. “Attention all, the next showing of the Amulet will begin in two minutes,” it thips. Not that any of our current trio understands it. 
     Following the iguana’s announcement, a turtle wearing a necklace of daisies takes the mic. “For our out-of-Sphere visitors, we have provided the service of a translator. We hope you will all enjoy seeing the display in person.
     “Oh, a translator!” Calliope says. “That will be handy.”
     “I wonder how hard it is to learn consort language if you never played SBURB,” Roxy wonders.
     “There’s a Duolingo course on it.” Jasprose crunches into an apple that neither of them saw her acquire. “I’m level two in Nakonese.”

     Soon, the lights in the Hall dim. The doors close, and the only source of sun comes from the hole in the ceiling. As it pours down on the display case, it gives the Amulet the appearance of glowing supernaturally. Dust motes fall gently in the rays of light. Calliope and Roxy sit criss-cross-applesauce on two of the woven mats placed ‘round the platform for visitors. Jasprose lurks behind them against the wall. The firepit crackles, and the audience chatter dies down. There aren’t many people in here besides the three of them – two iguanas, a turtle, a salamander, and a trio of nakodiles.

     “Thank you for coming out this afternoon,” says the turtle host. “We are pleased to show the Amulet of Ages as it travels through the Lesser Consort Sanctuaria. This artifact is believed to have originated from the Medium. It belongs to the King of Turtles himself, and is under the protection of the Symposium of the Light-Seer.

     Roxy turns to flash Jasprose a sly grin. Jasprose gives her the devil horns.

     “The Amulet leaves Beadedbrook County this weekend and will continue its northern tour to Casey’s Bridge the following week, so if you know a friend who has not yet seen its splendor, please refer them!
     “I’m so antsy,” Calliope whispers. When she lowers her voice, it whistles through her fangs in a lisping hiss unlike anything Roxy has ever heard. “The anticipation is too much to bear.”
     “They’re building suspense,” Roxy says. “Setting the scene, ya know?”
     Calliope bounces in her seat.
     “We also extend our thanks to our resident speaker of the Cross-Sphere tongue, who will translate for our transient guests. Please give him a warm welcome.

     A smattering of polite applause as someone comes into view. Roxy’s jaw drops. Calliope covers her mouth with her hands. Jasprose breaks into raucous laughter. Their translator is Tavros Nitram. Or, rather, it’s G… G-Cat… G-Cat-tavros? Their translator is whatever variation of Tavros Nitram’s name that you feel like saying privately inside your head.

     “Tavros ?” Jasprose guffaws.
     GCatavros is surprised to hear his name. He squints into the dark room and spots the three Originators in the corner. His eyebrows raise in a surprised grin, and he waves. “Oh, it’s the version of Rose, who was violently merged together with her, feline lusus. I remember you, and how you spoke in a matter, that was, strikingly inappropriate, in a sexual manner.”
     “You sound exactly the same!” she laughs. “What’s it been, two thousand years?”
     It’s hard to tell since they barely ever knew him, but it looks like Tavros’ horns have gotten a little bigger, his face a little sharper. “More or less, but when you are a sprite, you have less and less motivation to count years as they pass, because they go by very quickly, and are just about as pointless as, say, counting minutes in a day, or bubbles in a very fizzy carbonated beverage.”
     “You aren’t making… any attempt to hide yourself, are you?” Calliope asks. She’s referring to the two Nannasprites, who manage to pull off a damn convincing disguise when out in public.
     “Well, consorts don’t really seem to care, about all that, whether someone has legs or not, or if their skin is blue, or if they happen to have an additional set of ears that would be, better suited on a housecat. They are accommodating and kind in that respect, so I quite like it here. And, I can’t do any of the cool things, regarding the warping of the fabric of space, that the Cat was able to do. So I am not special in any way, other than outward appearances, and it is more important to consider, what’s inside of your pump biscuit, than how you look.” Gcatavros punctuates his rambling train of thought with a sneeze.
     “Don’t tell me you’re still allergic to yourself after all this time?” Jasprose asks. She’s barely restraining her gleeful schadenfreude at bearing witness to the disastrous continued existence of this sprite.
     “Well, no, the cat parts are pretty superfluous, on account of becoming vestigial parts of my body, when the Green Sun ceased to function, which means that I don’t produce dander, or whatever it is, that makes cats irritate me so much.” He wipes his nose. “My nose is just reacting to all the soot in the air, and the blooming trees outside, which have aggressive pollen, if you were wondering.”
     “We weren’t,” says Jasprose.

     The turtle’s announcements have gone in uninterrupted in the meantime. The rest of the audience sits apart from the three Originators, and the turtle appears accustomed to regular rowdiness. It barely casts a glance at them as Gcatavros carries on his conversation with the girls.

     “Are you still continuing your, time-hopping search for an era of time that is, suitable for the eclectic needs of your party?”
     “That’s right,” Calliope replies with a nod. “It’s been such fun, but rather disorienting after a while. Something always seems to go awry no matter where we go.”
     “Oh, yes, I have heard many fantastic tall tales and legends and rumors about, all the magnificent and glorious things, that the Originators get up to when they walk our world,” he says. “You all seem to have serious problems with, keeping on the ‘down low,’ as they say. You should consider living in one of the Sanctuaria, which are very clean, and beautiful, and filled with nice and gentle folk who don’t think you’re, annoying, or subtly encourage you to leave their company, to wander the wild world for thousands of years.”
     Jasprose is bored already. She examines her purple claws. “You left voluntarily. I remember it as if it were… oh, what, two months ago?”
     “Did I?” Gcatavros looks confused. He worries his thumb over his lip and shrugs. “I think I am of the opinion that the factual events, that make up our memories, are less important than how you look back on them, after a few millennia of pondering them, and any feelings of regret that you might start to be feeling. How are they, by the way? My friends?”
     “They seem to be doing pretty good!” Roxy says. “Karkat is still grumpy all the time, so Dave is like his emotional support boyfriend, it’s supes cute. Let’s see… um, Kanaya is totally into checking up on the Mother Grub whenever we go, it’s practically all she cares about, but Rose doesn’t seem to mind so much? Terezi left not too long after you did, actually. She’s searching the asscrack of the universe for Vriska, if she’s even still out there at all.”

     If any of these girls knew Tavros the way his friends used to know him, they might have been careful mentioning Vriska’s name. They might have known that it could cause a deep rumble of discomfort inside of him, a roiling pit of dread and fear. But they don’t, so they aren’t. And it ends up not mattering, anyway. Tavros doesn’t react to her name at all.

     “Is Nepeta’s soul still inextricably tied, to the dead orange version of Dave?”
     Jasprose clutches her chest. “Yes, that achingly beautiful enchantress, a Circe after my own heart, has been forever tarnished with the prototyping of my doomed and departed brother. It’s a tragedy I won’t soon forget.”
     “That is probably for the best, because Nepeta was always very nice to me, and I think it’s good she gets to explore this place, with the rest of us.” One of his cat ears flicks lazily, the twitching of a ghost limb he no longer needs. “Where is Aradia?”
     Roxy cocks her head. “I… don’t really know where she went with her spooky gamer boytoy, or where on the timeline they ended up. Sorry, dude.”
     Tavros looks pensive.

     The turtle host shuffles off the stage, and two salamanders in the back of the Hall play a tooting pair of tinny trumpets. It sounds pitchy and off-key. A curtain is lifted, and sunlight dapples in as a retinue of toddling turtles enters the Hall. The chief among them is a turtle whose shell has turned a dusty shade of pink with age. Wispy white hairs sprout from his chin, and he wears a crown of pinecones and river rocks. 

     “Introducing the King of Turtles, fifteenth of his station, and master of the Amulet of Ages,” announces a squire whose cloak fits poorly over its chin. “His Majesty will speak of the nature of the Amulet that his family has come to possess, and the great power that it wields.

     The rest of the audience has stood in respect to the King, so the girls rise to their feet, too.

     “Why do we keep running into royals whenever we go along with your ideas?” Roxy whispers to Jasprose. “Next time, we’re doing what literally anybody else wants to do.”
     “Worry not, Roxy, I don’t have a dead king to throw at this one,” Jasprose demurs.
     “Well, that’s my cue, so I must commit to my duties here as translator. Maybe I will see you once the exhibit is finished?” Gcatavros asks.
     “You don’t have to translate,” Jasprose says, “us Lalondes, we speak turtle already. We’ll translate for lil ole Callie here.”
     “That is fortunate for you and all, but I promised that I would fulfill the role, of translator, I mean, so I am going to do it anyway.” 

     And with that, he floats away from them to join the King’s retinue on stage. The King of Turtles, as it turns out, is surprisingly humble. He draws a laugh from the audience when he fumbles through a few formal opening statements, which he reads off of index cards. Then he clears his throat and bids his squire to lift the display case containing the Amulet. He does so, and the sunlight glitters over its surface.

     Roxy leans forward and squints at it. Then she squints at it some more. Then she rubs her eyes and blinks hard.

     “Is everything all right, Roxy?” Callie asks.
     “Yeah, it’s just….” Roxy scratches her head. “I think that’s my necklace up there?”

     When she says it aloud, it becomes more obvious. It’s the kind of necklace you would beg your mom to buy you at Claire’s, the kind of unassuming and dainty jewelry that a private school girl would wear to her cello recital, or her bat mitzvah, or a date with a really cute boy named Kyle, whose stepmom drove you both to the movie theater. The chain itself is thin and silver, and the charm hanging from it is smaller than her fingertip. A pink diamond – or a rhinestone, perhaps – sits in the center of a heart. A second, smaller charm dangles beside it like the awkward, less popular best friend of the kind of girl who would wear this – an unadorned, silver daisy.

     “My mom left me that necklace,” Roxy blurts. “It was in my jewelry box for years, but I never wore it.

     Jasprose eyes her, and for once she has nothing to say. Maybe she remembers being this version of Rose Lalonde, fleetingly, for only a few decades or so. Maybe she can feel the muscle memory of what it was like to be Dame Rose Lalonde, buying dainty and delicate baubles for a little girl she will never meet. Or maybe she just knows when to keep her trap shut – which seems unlikely. 

     The King of Turtles reads a rehearsed script that he’s probably recited a hundred times as his train of subjects follows him in this exhibition tour. He tells of how the Amulet was recovered among the ruins of Meteor Mound by ancient Carapacians, how it was protected and venerated, for it has originally been the possession of the Rogue. The Amulet, the King explained, was foretold by oracles and psychics to have once decorated the Rogue’s throat, and that one day she might possess it again. None throughout history had ever worn it, but only looked after it and kept its silver clean and bright. As centuries wore on, the Amulet acquired a reputation for holding wonderful and strange powers. Those who touched its flushed gem would have their wildest dreams granted, impossible gifts bestowed upon them, sights they might never have seen otherwise. A lonely woman who rubbed the gem when it was displayed within a cathedral woke the next morn to find that a child had been left on her doorstep. A troll who had lost his lusus to a grave disease looked into the night sky and saw that its shape had been formed out of the twinkling stars. Miracles followed the Amulet across the ages, but in order to preserve it, the Amulet came to be guarded by the Symposium. The only people who ever touched the Amulet now were those tasked to clean it, and only did so with gloves and cloth. 

     Tavros recounts all of this in his own stilted and awkwardly-worded version of the story, shooting nervous smiles to the three Originators all the while. As the King concludes, Tavros gives them a thumbs up, and Calliope returns it with a perplexed frown.

     Whatever they think the Amulet is or how it does what it does, the legend must be obscure. A necklace that belonged to gods and causes miracles to manifest must surely draw a huge crowd, but maybe the consorts don’t care. The King finishes his presentation, and gradually the gas lamps are turned back on. The audience stands and stretches, chattering among themselves. The King settles into a wooden throne carried by his footmen. A line of consorts who wish to ask him questions queue in front of him. A couple other consorts step up onto the platform to study the Amulet, which is again protected by its display case. Gcatavros drifts over to the three Originators as they loiter about the Amulet.

     “Well, how did you like my translation, do you think I demonstrated, a knack for their language?” he asks.
     “You did about as good a job as Meow Mix does of imitating proper feline nutrition,” Jasprose says.
     Gcatavros blinks, but does not betray any sign of being offended. “Anyway, did you enjoy the exhibition? I think the Amulet is quite pretty, and the stories about it are exciting, so I was glad to be asked to, be part of the tour,” he says. “Are one of you the Rogue? Sorry to offend, it’s just that, it’s been a few thousand years, and I don’t really read up on religion, and I have been so busy with my own adventures that I have basically forgotten what your Aspects were, or what my own was, honestly.”
     Roxy raises her hand. “That’s me. One Rogue in the flesh. No pictures, please.”
     “I wasn’t planning on, taking any photos of you, Ms. Rose’s Mother. Also, I do not own a camera.”
     Usually Roxy can roll with the punches. She’s adept at handling difficult people –  in fact, difficult people seem to be the only people she ever attracts. Tavros is just ungracefully oafish enough to make it harder than normal for her to keep the conversation bouncing along. Her eyebrows furrow. “It’s just a turn of phrase, dude.”
     “Oh. I know, I was just making a joke there, as a witty comeback to your sarcasm.”
     Calliope tugs on Roxy’s sleeve. “So, tell us, Roxy, is the Amulet really yours?”

     Roxy looks to the display case. Up close, it’s obvious now. The necklace isn’t all that cute, she thinks. It small and safely girlish in that early-2000s kind of way, the kind of accessory that would match with stick-on earrings and a Julius the monkey t-shirt. Roxy does not remember ever wearing it. 

     She had a lot of things like this that Rose Lalonde the Elder left her. Music box jewelry cases full of tacky rings and snap-on bracelets and tattoo chokers. Shoe boxes with foam wedge sandals and jelly shoes and fuzzy winter boots, closets bursting with clothes that would fit her from infancy to adulthood, labeled with cursive and protected by moth balls – which the Carapacians tried to eat. It was as though she had a preconceived notion of what Roxy would eventually grow up to like, but just as a child hates having their clothes picked out by their mother, she would come to resent her choices. Uniforms and costumes left behind, like all her cases filled with aged wines and Cuban cigars, and her medicine cabinets of Oxycodone and Aleve and Klonopin and leuprolide acetate. Well, the last one ended up being helpful. But she learned to avoid the other ones, indulging only in an occasional ibuprofen when her head hurt particularly badly. By the time she ever thought about trying on the fuzzy boots, she had already outgrown them.

     “Yeah, it’s deffo mine.”
     “I wonder how it came to be that the people of this world obtained it,” Calliope wonders.
     She shrugs. “Your guess is s’good as mine. Not like I was missing it.”
     Jasprose grins her sly, kibble-eating grin. “Don’t you want it back?”
     Roxy looks at her blankly. She looks to the Amulet, then back to Jasprose. “Jazzy, I don’t like the idea you’re comin’ up with.”
     “What idea?”
     “That, that idea, I can see the gears turnin’! Like when your kitty cat is thinkin’ about batting your chapstick off the nightstand. Stop it this instant.”
     “What–”
     Roxy snaps her fingers, and Jasprose flinches. “Pspspsp! No, bad cat.”
     “Wow, you three really are, sort of a lot to deal with,” says Tavros. “I am starting to not feel so bad, that your motley crew of deities, decided to leave me behind.”
     “You left on your own!” Jasprose and Roxy snap at the same time.

     Roxy can still see Jasprose thinking about thieving a treasured artifact. Her ear swivels back and forth, her tenta-whiskers twitching. Roxy chews her bottom lip.

     “I’m not going to steal from these guys, they seem really trusting and sweet and innocent and–”
     “Microaggression,” Jasprose says.
     “Hush it, Jazz. I’m not gonna steal from them, but I don’t see any harm in reviving the legend a lil bit.”
     “How do you mean?” asks Callie.
     “I mean, ya know,” Roxy says with a waggle of her fingers. 
     “Oh, you don’t mean you want to use your,” –  she drops her voice to a whisper – “powers of Void here?”
     “I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Remember the cool purple flowers we gave to that Dersite guy whose girlfriend had just dumped him?”
     Calliope sighs wistfully. “You lifted his spirits so much.”
     “Exactly! It’s totally harmless, a net positive for everyone involved.”
     “If this backfires horribly in your face, I shall go on the record now as stating that I had no such part in formulating this devilish plan,” Jasprose purrs. “But! I cannot say I’m disinterested.”
     Roxy puts her hands behind her back and feigns a casual pose, kicking the air idly. “Well, it sure would be a shame if the Amulet was somehow left out in the air for just anyone to put their grubby little paws on.”

     The other people we’ve met during this time, the little gods playing with their newfound powers like puppies chasing their tails, they have quaint and charming ways of describing the way their powers feel when they manifest them. How Life feels like bugs crawling across your skin, how Light is a tickling twinge behind ones eyes, how Time feels as though you’re running downward and downward down a spiral staircase until your legs are used to the movement and just keep moving on their own, trembling and shaking by the time you finally find flat ground again. The sharp and searing burn of Heart, the split instant before your brain tells your hand that you’ve brushed your skin against the hot stove. The vacuous purging of Hope, like you’re a tube of toothpaste that’s been squeezed in the very middle. Void doesn’t feel like any of that. Void feels like everything inside of you has been scooped out, like if you looked within yourself you’d see a deep Vantablack so dark that your mind would begin to play tricks, imagining shadows and highlights that don’t exist. And it’s those very shadows, those tricky highlights, that a hero of Void seeks to pull from Nothing. And what Roxy pulls from Nothing is, in fact, another Nothing.

     The display case vanishes, because it was never there to begin with.

     The onlookers gasp and step backward. What is one to do when something disappears before their very eyes? There is no comical puff of fairy dust or cute sound effect when the case disappears – it is simply there one moment and gone the next. Those waiting in line to speak with the King turn to see what all the fuss is about. The King himself looks, too, and stands from his seat with the help of his walking stick.

     “What is the meaning of this?” he asks the room.
     “The Amulet, your Majesty, the protective glass has vanished into nothing! Sucked into the Void itself !” peeps an iguana.
     Excited chatter roils around the Hall. The King of Turtles raises his walking stick to silence them. “How, now, what mysterious majyyks have followed us here? Most unusual indeed, and see how the Amulet beckons!

     In direct sunlight, Roxy’s necklace glitters. It’s very pretty, Calliope thinks. Jasprose is more focused on the glints of light it reflects onto the ceiling, her tail twitching. She wants very badly to fly up there and bat at it.

     “That was pretty cool, the trick you just did there, or that I am assuming you did, but I very much doubt that the King, will allow a bunch of common consorts, to rub their hands all over a very valuable, and very ancient antique,” Tavros says in his loud whisper.
     “A sign from the Void itself! ” the King announces. The chatter starts up again. From outside, more heads start to poke in to see what all the hullabaloo is about. “We hear your call to us, O roguish of Rogues! We throw ourselves at your mercy and do as you bid!”

     Roxy is making herself smaller in the back of the room. Focusing very hard on the ledge of the display, she stares until a tiny set of linen gloves materializes beside the Amulet. Gasps and shrieks rise from the growing audience. Consorts push to get closer, but simultaneously keep their distance, afraid to be caught up in whatever chaotic majyyks are at play.

     “The Rogue hears us! ” cries the King. He thumps his stick upon the floor. “For the first time in many moons, the Amulet will hear the wishes of those who have faith! I bid a brave soul to take part in this legend of legends, and mayhaps look upon a miracle marvelous dear!”

     And so a brave soul comes forth.

     It’s a pot bellied salamander, its scales flecked with shades of orange. It toddles up the steps to the platform and offers a respectful bow to the King, who nods his head. 

     “Your Majesty, if I may, allow me to test the safety of touching the Amulet, in order to avert catastrophe for some other fellow.
     “What is he saying?” Callie whispers to Gcatavros.
     “He is saying that he wants to, touch the Amulet, and see whether it is safe to touch, although, I could be wrong, considering the complex grammatical nuances of, the salamander language.”
     “Well met, and have at it, brave salamander,” says the King.

     The salamander approaches the Amulet and puts the linen gloves over its sticky, webbed hands. Then it reaches to cautiously touch the pink gem, hovering in hesitation for just a moment. It’s afraid to touch the necklace for too long, and quickly withdraws its hand.

     “What did you desire from the Void, my fellow?” asks the King.
     “It is not my desire to ask for much of the Rogue, who watches over us with kind eye and heart, ” falters the salamander. “I wished merely for a modest loaf of bread, so as to not test the limits of her generosity.

     Tavros sloppily translates the wish in Roxy’s ear, and she feels herself grinning in the way that one does when one’s friend is about to open a birthday present, the anticipation of knowing that something you did will make them happy. She focuses very hard on the space between the salamander’s stumpy arms, having all sorts of philosophical thoughts about bread. She thinks about the ancient Roman who burned a loaf of bread so badly that they buried it in the ground, how ancient bakers would brand their loaves to ensure that the flour wasn’t laced with sawdust. She thinks all of these things until she’s suddenly craving a sandwich, and a fat loaf of sourdough bread appears in the salamander’s arms.

     If the Hall wasn’t excited before, they’re going absolutely apeshit now.

     Consorts jump up and down and holler. The King stands so perfectly still, his mouth hanging open, that Roxy thinks he might be having a heart attack. Such raucous cheering rises from the Community Hall that more townfolk start to walk in and check to see what’s going on. Within moments, they’re jumping and screaming, too.

     “Another! ” shouts the King. He points his staff to a nakodile in the front row. “You, my sister, approach the Amulet!

     The nakodile is shaking all over. She toes over to the Amulet and dons the gloves, then gives the rhinestone a few strokes, like it’s a stray cat who may or may not bite her hand. 

     “Uh, uh, um, a new basket for my hatchlings, if you may, ” she asks the air, “so that I may carry them about on my back, if it please you.”

     Roxy has seen baby consorts before. They like to crawl all over their parents and nest on their heads. Their glassy eyes stare unblinking into the air, their mouths hanging open like baby possums. She conceptualizes it, the love that this nakodile must have for her eggs, and a sturdy basket of bamboo and wicker appears on her back. It’s strapped across her chest with black leather. The nakodile removes the basket and reaches inside, where a baby rattle somehow made it along for the ride.

     “Many thanks to Mother Void!” she cries with glee, and the Hall lights up again with delight.

     It continues like this for a while. The King ushers consorts forth to rub the Amulet, and Roxy does her best to actualize their desires. If she gets details wrong, the recipients don’t express disappointment – how else would you react if an invisible god was bestowing gifts into your arms from nothingness? The more wishes she fulfills, the happier and more flushed she grows. Jasprose claps gleefully with each party trick performed, and Callie sits beside Roxy contentedly, looking at her from the corner of her eye every now and then. Roxy tries not to notice that Callie is looking at her and smiling, and maybe this is part of the reason she’s still pulling rabbits from her hat – for the look she gives her, and the warmth it makes her feel in her chest.

     The Hall is now bursting with almost the entire population of Beadedbrook. Outside, they can hear the chattering and cheering of those who are hanging about outside. It surprises the three Originators just how little pushing and shoving occurs for some lucky consort to be next in line. The most important thing to them isn’t getting their material wants fulfilled, it’s watching the Rogue perform her majyyks from some invisible plane, it’s seeing someone else cry for joy at having had a divine interaction. 

     But even party tricks grow weary after a while, and after some time, the King announces an end to the miracles. The crowd is restless, but they cease their jabbering when Roxy summons once more the vanished glass case. The Amulet is shielded now, and the linen gloves left sitting atop it. A squire of the King comes to collect them, setting them aside in a velvet jewelry box. 

     “A most merry day for all Spheres indeed, that we have witnessed firsthand the grace of the Rogue! ” says the King. “All of my hearty thanks to my knights and squires, who kept the Amulet safe along its eastbound route!”

     The knights bow bashfully, and the Hall cheers.

     “My thanks to the Symposium of the Light-Seer, for its generous safeguarding of the Amulet throughout the years.

     The audience raises their arms and roars.

     “My gratitude to the out-of-sphere translator, who has carried the legends of the Amulet across the countryside,” says the King, extending a hand to Gcatavros.

     The crowd explodes with clapping, and Tavros blushes a deep shade of cobalt. He rubs his neck and waves to the consorts cheering him on.

     “Uh, thank you, everyone, for your uh, gratitude and for, allowing me to join the uh, retinue of the King and, uh, travel the Sanctuaria,” he rasps. His throat is dry with nerves, so he swallows. “But I think I should really be thanking uh, the Rogue, for granting the wishes of everyone, and for being such a good sport about it.”

     Tavros motions to Roxy and gives her a toothy smile.

     Roxy looks at Tavros blankly.

     Calliope look to Tavros, then to Roxy, then to the King.

     The King stares with his mouth open.

     Jasprose claps her hands and giggles.

     “Was I, uh, was I not supposed to, say anything?” Gcatavros asks.
     “No, you really weren’t,” replies Calliope.
     “Uh, shit, I mean, shoot, I am just the worst at keeping secrets,” he laments. “Sorry for, throwing a funk in your good time, and all that.”

     There is a period of silence in the Hall during which you could hear a snot bubble pop. And then the consorts inside start screaming with glee.

     “Whoa – hey! ” Roxy cries as a bunch of young iguanas cling to her pant legs. “Guys, watch it, I’m gonna bust my ass on one of ya!”

     The King is announcing something with his walking stick held aloft, but nobody can hear him. It’s all lost in the commotion as the Rogue’s new devotees swarm them.

     “Roxy –  ow ! –  I am getting the notion that we should –  oh, bother –  head out of here!” Calliope yelps.
     “Why?” Jasprose asks. She’s watching a group of nakodiles tug on her tail with a bemused look on her face. “It isn’t as if you’ve brought attention to yourself!”
     “Jazz, now is not the time for your sass!” Roxy scolds.
     “It’s always the time for my what? Roxy, I’m surprised at you, cursing in front of strangers.”
     “Jazz, please work with me here and get us out!”
     “Oh, so now you want me to bail you out of royalty’s presence. I was under the impression that you found it to be inconvenient the last time.”
     “Jazz!”

     Jasprose whisks her hand upward, and a glittery fenestrated window appears. This moment, Roxy thinks, already feels nostalgic. Déjà vu creeps up on her even as they’re partway through the panels.

     “So long folks!” Jasprose trills with her head poking out of the frame.
     “Yes, thank you for your hospitality!” Calliope calls before disappearing.
     “G’night folks, thanks for takin’ care of my necklace!” Roxy says with a polite wave.
     “Sorry about, the misunderstanding,” Tavros says, “tell my friends that I said, hello, and to visit me here, if they want to.”
     “Will do, Tav. Catch ya on the flip side!”

     Beadedbrook Community Hall has lost three Originators, but gained more gifts than they can count.



     Outside of Beadedbrook, the forest trails are getting dark. Frogs are croaking in the dark as they leave the village far behind them. Eventually they will happen upon an isolated train stop that picks up passengers once every hour or so, and this will be their ride back to where they came from. 

     Jasprose swats at a gnat buzzing around her head. “We should have stayed for dinner. I smelled one hell of a mean chicken roasting.”
     “We can’t take advantage of their kindness,” Roxy says, shaking her head. “It isn’t right.”
     “Why? Even though we made this whole big world for them?”
     “You, personally, had nothin’ to do with it. Don’t take credit for stuff ya didn’t do.”
     “All that adventure makes me sorely regret not having the time to shop,” Calliope sighs. “I quite liked the things that they had to offer, and I would have liked a piece of authentic Beadedbrook earthenware.”
     Roxy lurches to attention. Patting her pockets, she says, “That reminds me! Callie, I got you a gift when we were browsin’ the stalls.”
     Calliope looks pleasantly surprised. “Did you? Oh, Roxy, that was quite unnecessary.”
     “Nah, I wanted to. Here, this is for you.”

     Roxy presents the green necklace that she bought from the elderly iguana. Callie’s eyes shine, and she accepts it carefully, like she’s afraid of breaking it. Jasprose gives Roxy a cheeky smile as Callie fawns over the gift.

     “This was my favorite by far!” she croons, turning over the glazed beads in her fingers.
     “I figured. It’s your color, isn’t it?”
     “Yes!” Calliope’s smile is blinding. Her face flushed, Roxy offers to help fasten it. It matches Callie’s outfit well, and the beads make a pleasant clinking noise when she moves. “Thank you, Roxy. That was very kind of you.”
     She rubs her neck. “Ya know, I just try to, do what I can, ya know….”
     “I’m sure I shall treasure it.” Callie loops her arm around Roxy’s. “What a successful date!”

     Roxy’s heart soars.

     “This was–” she clears her dry throat, “so this was like, a real date? For-real for-real?”
     “What, you were under the impression that it wasn’t?”
     “I told you I was being a third wheel!” Jasprose trills as she floats along the path. She flashes them that kibble-eating grin once more. “Congratulations, Rox. You still got game after all.”

     Callie gives an embarrassed laugh, and Roxy blushes hard. Without meaning to, she squeezes her arm to her side, which draws Callie closer to her. Callie doesn’t consider it a mistake, though. She simply rests her head gently against Roxy’s arm, and they continue walking side by side.

 

     There is a copy of The Complacency of the Learned that has lived on Roxy’s bookshelf for many years. It’s different from all the copies Rose left about the house. This one is an advance copy, marked with a peeling sticker in one corner, given to someone who Rose might have known when she was still alive. The front page is marked with her looping cursive, the indents of her pen that Roxy traced over and over with her finger. She had written an excerpt from a Keats poem for whoever this book was meant for, a gift that somehow made its way back to her in the end: “To feel for ever its soft fall and swell, / Awake for ever in a sweet unrest, / Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever—or else swoon to death.” 

     It made her very sad to think of how and why such a sentimental inscription returned to Rose’s possession. It made her heart hang heavy with grief. Roxy thinks of it now, a flash of a memory skittering across her mind, and feels her chest fill with warmth. She hopes that whoever her mother was thinking of when she wrote it, whoever the lovely lady was to which the book was gifted, Rose loved her the same way Roxy loves Calliope right now, with millennia behind them and many years ahead.

Chapter Text

 

The following tale is loosely based upon supposed events that took place in the Lesser Consort Sanctuarium circa 4700-4760 and were recorded by the Veneration of the Void. Access to the original records are encrypted from the public, so this tale is paraphrased to respect the practices of Void Venerators. Little other record of it remains in the Thipsonian Institution’s library.

 

     In the northern forests of the Sphere of Consorts, there was a kingdom of turtles that was ruled by a wise and noble elder known as the King of Turtles. 

     Though he was King, there were many rulers beneath him, and he was just and gentle in his rulings. It was rumored among his subjects that the King had been a leader of brave men from the time that turtles dwelled on the chalky shoes of the Land of Light and Rain, when the oceans rumbled with the restless dreams of the beast Cetus, and when rain had streaked down in many lovely hues. So the King continued his reign in the new world, as his surviving subjects had entrusted him with their safety for many years. He watched the forests with a steady eye, and when troubles arose among the people, he listened with an unbiased ear. So the Sphere of Consorts passed many peaceful centuries, the King’s family grew, and after a time it came to be that his fifteenth grandson ascended the Throne of the Turtles. This King was wise and just like his ancestors before him, and took to his duties very seriously.

     One of the crucial responsibilities of the King of Turtles was overseeing the well-being of the Amulet of Ages. An ancient artifact passed on from the first days of the Meteor, the Amulet was a silver pendant encrusted with a marvelous pink diamond that refracted light and shone with shades of brilliant magenta. It was the treasure of all who gazed upon it, not merely for its coveted beauty, but for the mysterious powers it possessed. Long ago, they said, the Amulet of Ages was the possession of the Rogue of Void, who wore it everywhere she went. Over time, the Amulet had acquired the powers of its master, and could fulfill wishes of those who touched its sparkling gem. Many attested to the truth of the Amulet, that it could perform miracles and bring the impossible into being. As the former consorts of the Rogue and Seer, it fell upon the kingdom of turtles to watch over it. So the King was tasked with its care.

     Because of the Amulet’s age and its absolute inability to be replaced, the Amulet fell out of public use and was protected with a glass case. No one could touch it anymore, nor use it to bring about their deepest wishes. When the King took the throne, his advisers asked him whether he would lift the protections on the Amulet of Ages’ use. 

–  Nay, said the King, for the Amulet is a gift of the Originators to the humble Spheres of this world, and we must take the utmost care to guard it.

     And that was that. His policy remained steadfast for decades, until a grave situation fell upon the kingdom of turtles.

 

     One year, the northern forests were stricken with most unusual weather. The winter was long and the summer was short. Bodies of water froze over, trees shed their rotten fruits, and fields of farmland failed to produce the amount of food needed to nourish its people. The forests reached out to the other Spheres for aid, and aid was given gladly. Yet for all of the good food and blankets and firewood delivered to the turtle’s kingdom, it was difficult to keep out the cold and the gloom. An illness fell among the King’s subjects, and he was distraught to find that his eldest daughter had come down with a fever and chills.

     The King consulted many physicians to aid with the outbreak. Doctors traveled from town to town in wagons that bustled from dawn til dusk, and the chief among them was stationed to stay with the princess at all times. He wiped the sweat from her forehead and tended to her every need with medicines of all kinds, but her condition did not improve. While the common turtles were bouncing back from the sickness that had bogged them down, the princess remained ill. The King’s heart ached.

     As the princess wasted in her bedchamber, the King consulted another means to cure her disease. He lit a gas lantern and went down into his carriage during the dead of night, when his anxious thoughts kept him from the balm of sleep.  Taking the reins in his hands, the King rode across the kingdom to the other side of the valley, where the Amulet of Ages was protected by the turtles in his employment. Two half-sleeping knights met the King when his carriage approached, and carrying his lantern aloft, he was escorted into its safehaven.

     The Amulet of Ages found its resting place in a chapel by the edge of the wood. Its domed ceiling was painted with the history of the kingdom, of all the past kings and the the miracles the Amulet had performed. A single pane of crystalline glass in the ceiling allowed a beam of moonlight to stream down and shine upon the case in which the Amulet was nestled. Its antique silver shone brilliantly, and the fine fuchsia gem glittered in the light. If the doctors could do nothing for the King’s daughter, then he must resort to miracles. The King bid the knights to remove the case, and he took the Amulet in his shaking hands.

     Whisking his fingers over the pink jewel, he pled for the Rogue to have pity on his eldest.

She is my treasured daughter, my first child, and she withers away before my eyes, he wept. His tears fell to the floor as she clasped the Amulet. Please, have mercy on an old man. Grant me, Rogue, if it be your will, a cure to what ails my girl.

     For a little while, nothing happened. The moon continued to peer down at the King, and the Amulet trembled in his hands. The King looked to the darkest shadows of the room, the corners in which no light shone, and gradually he saw the darkness congeal. It formed the shape of a woman, a woman who was quite tall, with curls of beautiful hair that framed her round face. She strode into the swaths of moonlight, and the silver beams highlighted the emblem of Void upon her chest. It was the Rogue of Void herself. The King of Turtles cried out and fell to one knee, bowing before her divine presence.

–  Why do you grovel, little King? asked the Rogue. Stand, and have me look at you.
The King did as he was asked. Rogue, I am honored to stand in your holy Voidship. I beg of thee to hear my most humble of pleas.
–  I have heard your prayer, King, and I can see how your daughter toils, how she holds on to Life even in her suffering. You wish for me to provide some magic cure for the princess?
Worded like this, it made the King seem quite silly, but he blushed and did not falter. Rogue, I would receive gladly whatever may relieve her of her sickness.

     The Rogue considered this. She took the Amulet of Ages from his hands and put it ‘round her neck. The pink jewel shone at her throat.

–  This is not the first time that your Sphere has fallen upon troubled times , said she, but you did not resort to the Amulet for a resolution. What makes this case different from the rest?
–  Please, muttered the King. My daughter….
–  As all children do, yours relies upon the strength of her caretaker to survive. She is no different from the common daughters, the ones who work with robots, the ones who work in the fields, the ones who guard your kingdom.
–  I have done all I can for my subjects, and their sicknesses are relieved by the Court of Physicians. I have not neglected their health, Rogue – this you must believe, if nothing else.

     The Rogue studied him. 

Four things will I grant you, said the Rogue. The first will be a vial of curative that will keep the princess alive.
– Blessed be your lowly subject, whispered the King in reverence.
I am not finished. The second will be a crown of lead, five and twenty kilograms in weight, which shall sit upon your Majesty’s head for a full thirty days. The second will be a ball and chain of iron, which will stay affixed to your ankle for the same number of days. The third will be a cloak of chains, five and forty kilograms in weight, which will hang ‘bout your shoulders for the samesuch time. They may be removed, but if they are taken from your body before the end of the designated time, the vial will lose its powers, and your daughter will fall subject to the ravaging of her sickness.
–  And what if I should keep the garments upon myself for the full thirty days? asked the King. He was not put off by her stipulations. His hands seemed to reach forward, ready to receive the garments of metal.
–  Then the vial which your daughter ingested will cure her of all her ills, and she will enjoy a long and happy life.

     The King agreed immediately, for no price was too steep to protect his child, nor was any humiliation too great. From the empty ether of Void the Rogue pulled the lead crown, the ball and chain, and the iron chains. She placed the crown on his head, she placed the ball and chain on his ankle, and she placed the robe of chains around his neck. It was hard for him to walk and to move his head and to lift his arms, but the King betrayed no sign of weakness. The last gift the Rogue pulled from nothing was a pink vial of curative, with a label across it that read For the princess. It smelled of roses and cherries, and the King took it with joy in his heart.

     The Rogue traced her fingers along the chain of the Amulet. In thirty days, return to me, King, and the Amulet I shall return to you. In that time, look after your subjects well.

     With their meeting concluded, the King rode across the kingdom once more and returned to the castle. It was morning now, and the princess was stirring in her sleep. As the doctor was changing the ice on her forehead, the King burst in with the pink vial. Explaining the wondrous sights he had seen the night prior, he uncorked the medicine and bade the princess to drink every last drop. She did so, and the doctor marvelled at the strange and cumbersome metals that bogged the King down. Indeed, he was slow to move and slow to walk, and it made him speak slower, too, as he had more time to formulate his thoughts. 

–  Why, Majesty, do you not simply rid yourself of your weights? asked the chief of doctors.
–  I have made my promise to the Rogue and will see it to the end, said he.

 

     The next thirty days passed as slowly as the King walked with his ball and chain. Word spread of the experience he had had with the Rogue, and the conditions she had laid forth for the curing of the princess. All the while, his eldest daughter laid in bed, her condition not worsening, but not improving either. She was simply listless, and spent her time playing chess with her nursemaids, or else listening to her doctor read aloud. As the princess occupied her idle days, the King put himself to work. 

     With his ball and chain in tow, he traveled the kingdom with his physicians and delivered medicines and food and blankets to those among his subjects who were still the most ill. He helped collect firewood and harvest wheat and boil great vats of stew, and the people grew to expect the King, as he could often be seen serving meals to his subjects. He marveled to himself that he had never before walked among the turtles like this, and found his toiling rewarding. It took his thoughts away from restless fretting over the princess, and in the King’s presence, morale among the sick began to rise. The streets of his kingdom were busier now that many had been cured.

     At the end of thirty days, the King of Turtles found that his kingdom was much different. He had always been well-liked and respected by his people, but the firsthand work they saw him commit to during the past month deepened their love of him. Now few remained who were stricken with fever. The strange weather was even beginning to lift, and on the final day of the King’s trials, the sun poked through the gray clouds.

     On the final morning, the King sat by his eldest daughter’s bed and watched as sunlight shone through her window. Her eyes fluttered open, and she took a breath. Looking to her nursemaids and her father and her siblings and her doctor, she cried out, Father, I am cured! 

     The room was full of merriment and cheer, and the princess was swept up in the joy of her beloved friends and family. To the King, it did not matter whether a man’s weight in chains held him down. As long as he could see his eldest smile once more, his trials had all been worth it.

     And so it was that the Rogue kept her end of the bargain. When the princess awoke fully cured, the garments of metal that had weighed the King down were magically removed. He was a free man now, and he took his daughter to the chapel to check on the Amulet of Ages. Indeed, it had returned to its place in the crystal case, and the King was grateful to the Rogue for performing her own miracle on his child’s behalf. The day of her healing was marked a holiday among the kingdom of turtles, and the Amulet of Ages is revered even today as an artifact of great wonders. Though no one touches its jewel anymore, it draws many visitors from the Four Spheres, who admire it for its beauty and its legendary might.

 

 

The end.

Chapter Text

     The year 4913 is just like any other. The year 4913 is not the year 2009, and it is not home.

 

     John Egbert misses his house.

     Meteor Mound is not his house. It’s the site where the meteor from the Veil crashed to Earth around two months ago – millennia ago if you’re not an Originator. At the south end of the continent of Hemeran, close enough to be a hop and a skip to Nyxile, Meteor Mound is around the area where the Gulf of Mexico once was. The forest that was here has now been cleared into a bustling town. If the Fertile Crescent was the cradle of Old Earth’s civilization, Meteor Mound is Earth C’s. The first of the Spheres to settle here – the Carapacians from the Yellow Yard, the consorts, the first attempts at ectobiology – everyone started here and expanded outward. As a result, Meteor Mound is a protected historical site. Much of the infrastructure is centuries upon centuries old, rebuilt as things begin to fall apart. Universities make their homes here, libraries, research facilities, ancient homes of the most ancient bloodlines on the  planet. The outer facades look old, but they’ve been renovated and replaced and reinforced from age and fire and weather. It’s London and it’s Paris and it’s New York and Kyoto and Cairo and Tehran and Beijing all rolled into one, with all the charming small town charm of your Meemaw’s old village in Italy.

     But it isn’t home. It was Rose and Dave’s home for a while. It is nowhere near Washington State, and it is nowhere close to anything John has ever known.

     “John, look, look at this,” Nanna One appears beside John and shows him a keychain she just bought from a street vendor. It’s a vinyl, squishy version of the Meteor, with Meteor Mound, Est. 2941 written along its curve. “Isn’t that just the cutest? Jane got a second one, so why don’t you give it to your friends?”

     John looks behind her, where Nanna Two is holding another keychain. He takes it and puts it in his pocket. “Thanks, Nanna.”

     John Egbert feels like the cranky twelve-year-old who has been forced to go to Disneyland and would rather be back at the hotel listening to Breaking Benjamin.

 

     John Egbert misses his house. Has he mentioned that already? If not, have a reminder. Ever since he has arrived in this place, he’s felt as though he’s about to miss the last step in a staircase and come crashing down on his face. There’s Nanna Two, who regards him with sincere affection laced with suspicion. There’s Jade, who seems to be mad at him but won’t tell him why or allow him to broach the topic. There’s the folks of the Meteor, that tight-knit group that doesn’t seem to have room for anyone else. There’s Jane, and Jane’s dad, who is so achingly close to the real thing, but will never be his dad. And there’s no home for him at all. Just transitory camps, tents and bed and breakfasts and townhomes with empty rooms for rent and hostels with bunk beds full of students and travelers. He feels jetlagged with time travel. He wants to go home. There is no home to return to. So they keep traveling.

     John Egbert thinks about his daily routine. What he would do before school, the order in which he would do things. Getting up and searching for clothes and going to the bathroom and brushing his teeth and wetting down his bedhead. He thinks about all the little things in his house he never thought to miss. The toothbrush holder by the sink, the bathroom rug with a clown embroidered on it. The step in the stairs that creaked on the lefthand side. His home still exists on the Land of Wind and Shade, decrepit and destroyed. But much of what was inside was wiped out along with the Prospitian Royal Navy Ship Basilica , or else donated to the original settlers of Earth C for educational purposes. Rose and Jade gave them a number of their books, as did Kanaya and Karkat and Terezi. Jade relinquished hundreds of ancient Old Earth artifacts from her grandfather’s collection, which probably sit in a Meteor Mound museum at this very moment. The little things that he misses won’t be easily recovered.

     He thinks fleetingly to the story Roxy recently recounted of her date with Calliope to the Lesser Consort Sanctuarium, where she discovered that they had gotten their hands on an old necklace of hers. If a coincidence like that could happen out in the wilderness, it seems just as likely that John could find something of his here, at Meteor Mound, where everything began. Something from his room, a possession of his father’s, anything. He perks up a little.

 

     “Nanna,” he says, and both of them look up at him. “Do you want to walk the stairs to the Meteor? I think I could use the exercise.”     
     Both of them are shielded from the afternoon sun with their straw hats. Nanna One ruffles John’s hair. “That’s my boy. Adventure is important, but health even more so! Let’s all take a walk together.”
     “In our case, we’ll be taking a float,” Nanna Two jokes.

     The cobblestone roads of Meteor Mound are painted with faded maps that show the historical routes of the city. Tourists can follow along with a printed map, which is conveniently color-coded. John does just this as he and his two chaperones traverse uphill, where the “Mound” in “Meteor Mound” earns its name. There are painted paths that demarcate the underground tunnels beneath their feet, old sewage plans and discontinued foot passages and the locations of long-gone historical buildings. John uses his pinky finger to trace the route to the Meteor. It isn’t as if he can’t see it from where they stand – it sits atop the precipice of a hill, a Vesuvius above their lowly Pompeii – but the city grid is so convoluted and outdated that a straight path to the Meteor is hard to parse.

     There’s a series of stone stairways up to the Mound that are about as straight as a bowl of spaghetti. The noon sun beats down on John as they climb a winding set of uneven steps, worn into divots from all the thousands of feet that have tred it in the past. John is very disgruntled that he can’t fly in public, or else he would have given up ages ago. Sweat beads on his forehead.

     “Which museum shall we visit first, John? The decision is yours,” asks Nanna One from behind.
     “There’s more – than one?” he answers, taking a moment to catch his breath and not failing to notice the irony in doing so.
      “Why certainly, Meteor Mound is rife with them. You can’t throw a stone without hitting a museum!”
      “But you really mustn’t throw stones here, John, there are many historical sites to be damaged,” clucks Nanna Two.
      “What’s the difference?” he asks.
      Nanna One fans herself with her map. “There’s the Museum of Idolatry Portraiture – you might like that, John, seeing you and all your pals painted like Greek gods. Oh, let’s see. Jane, what else is there, what am I forgetting?”
      “The Museum of Alch–”
      “Yes! The Museum of Alchemical Enterprise, which is more of a science museum than anything, and that’s all well and good, but when I go to a museum I go to see art .”
      “There’s the Museum of the Ectochildren,” Nanna Two says, “all of its art is done by the first children ever created on this world, the first inhabitants to spring from the slime.”
      “I hear that’s a good one,” Nanna One muses.
      “I’d like to go to the Museum of Wigglerology, they have a lovely exhibit going of tapestries woven from the Mother Grub’s discarded cocoon fibers. The most delicate things you’ve ever seen, daintier than a doily,” Nanna Two says. “Well, enough of what a couple of old biddies want. Where would you like to go, John?”
     John pauses to tie his shoe on the stone wall. “Wherever I can see the stuff we left behind.”

     This would be the Museum of Our Glorious Originators.

     The museum’s name is shortened to “MOGO” on the streetlamp-hanging banners that lead up to it. Following the northward route to MOGO, John starts to notice all the signs for special exhibitions. The Amulet of Ages is coming back for a spring exhibit. It’s to be displayed along with other ancient jewelry of the Originators, namely the Seer of Light and Sylph of Space. Tattoo chokers and old tubes of empty lipstick rest on velvet cushions in a poster advertising “Beauty and Hygiene in the Age of the Veil.” John wonders how long the Carapacians spent scouring their garbage after they left the meteor behind.

     MOGO is a wide, columned building that evokes the National Gallery of London, or the Louvre, or any number of fancy places John has never visited. If one of his friends were with him – which they typically aren’t, because John has found recently that he likes to be alone – they might draw a comparison to the South Mariana Courthouse. In the terraced lawns that sprawl out before the museum, groups of people are laid out on picnic blankets and eating lunch, walking their dogs and reading their books, taking selfies and playing frisbee. A band of trolls play the bongos beneath a tree, and a group of Carapacians are participating in what looks like an enthusiastic poetry circle. John idles past them with his hands in his pockets, listening to different languages that he can’t place because they evolved after the Originators packed up and left. The Nannas toss a tip to the bongo-playing trolls.

     Up and up the steps they go. Inside, the MOGO is all glass and marble. Footsteps and laughter and the beeping of machinery echoes high into the arched glass ceiling. Because the museum is as free to the public as any other museum in Meteor Mound, they breeze past the ticket desk and look up into the ceiling, where John can see the clear sky and cotton ball clouds hovering over the city. Colored mosaic glass hangs down from fishing lines, and their hues bounce off of the shining floor when the light hits them just right.

     The last time John went to an art museum was probably 2008. His father took him to Seattle for the day, and they paddle-footed around the Seattle Art Museum for a few hours. There were a lot of exhibits going on. Black art and Korean art and Impressionism and a huge installation of giant orange traffic cones in the gardens. John spent a lot of time sitting on the benches and swinging his legs while his father looked at each painting with his arms crossed and his finger whisking his chin in deep thought. John doesn’t really think he’s ever really understood art, not in the kind of way that makes people stare at it.

     He thinks of all the art that was wiped out on Earth, and feels another pang of hollow misery.

     “Are we going to the beauty exhibit?” Nanna One asks.
     “I’d love that,” Nanna Two chimes in, “the sheer idea of it just tickles me. Can you imagine if they had the remains of our golden ship to rifle through, Jane?”
     Nanna One hoots with laughter. “Oh, dear, all our half-finished projects when we were learning how to crochet with one hand.”
     “All the sweaters we knitted for the kids!”
     “Well! I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that our personal possessions were annihilated.”
     “You can go to the exhibit, if you like,” John cuts in. “I think I’m just going to visit each room in order.”
     “Very orderly, our John is.” Nanna One pinches his cheek. “We’ll meet you back in the lobby, honey.”

     John watches the two Nannas buoy themselves up one half of the forked staircase. Underneath the skirts that hide their sprite tails, they’re thumping their tails against each step to feign the appearance of walking. It’s pretty convincing, but if you already know what’s beneath the skirt, they just look like they’re bouncing on pogo sticks, or doing a Tigger impersonation. Their matching hats disappear over the railing, and John is alone.

     A regular art museum is usually sorted by the continent the art came from, or the movement it falls under. The Museum of Our Glorious Originators makes distinctions between individual gods, which are then sorted by lunar sway. In halls painted different shades of royal purple, John shuffles past pieces pertaining to the Originators of Derse. An old pajama set of Kanaya’s is set behind glass, treated with all the same dignity and seriousness of a samurai’s armor. Manuscripts of ancient folktales and legends can be read. An ancient, rusted, dried-out set of Nepeta’s old paints are in their own case. John recognizes some of the artifacts. Others he thinks might have been passed off as forgeries. A broken bow and arrow looks too new to have ever belonged to Equius.

     Other halls are home only to art, with no antiques to be seen. The paint job shifts to shades of saffron and goldenrod – the galleries of Prospit. Paintings that reimagine fairytales line the walls – one portrait is called The Lament of Azure and Maroon, another is titled The Heir and the Mayor at the Heart of the Battlefield. He stops when he sees a massive portrait that stretches from ceiling to floor. Its frame is a burnished gold, and a velvet rope prevents visitors from standing too close. The plaque on the frame reads The Witch’s Long Solitude.

     Most art of the Originators are laden with symbolism. In this one, the Witch kneels, genuflecting, at the helm of the golden battleship. Folding inward toward herself, she cradles a raven with its belly rupturing with the growth of many glowing, blue mushrooms. Shadowy, slim figures meant to look like Carapacians linger in her periphery, offering their hands but not touching her. It resembles a Pieta, rife with bitter grief. He leans forward to read the description beside it.

     “Rosa Lorianna Helbert, ‘The Witch’s Long Solitude.’ Oil on canvas, 3422-3426,” it says. “The thirty-fifth century saw a rivival in what is known today as the ‘Grief of Gods’ movement, which sought to depict the softer and more vulnerable side of our Originators. A popular subject during this period was the Witch’s Long Solitude. Helbert spent four years painting her massive magnum opus , and discarded many rough drafts before completing the final masterpiece. Helbert’s family had traditionally been bound to the Cult of the Witch, and the majority of her work incorporated the Witch. Known today for her evocative and bold use of color, Helbert’s take on the Long Solitude is considered to be her finest work, in part due to its contrast with her earlier depictions of the Witch as a wild goddess of the wilderness.

     The painting is too tall, and it makes Jade look stretched out and weird when John lifts his chin to look at her. From an artistic perspective, though, he guesses that it’s decent work. But she got the color of Jade’s god tier stockings wrong.

     John passes through the Prospit Galleries and fails to find anything that he came here to find. He even goes back to the front lobby and returns to the Beauty and Hygiene in the Age of the Veil exhibit, but nothing of his is included –  obviously. He sees, instead, a lot of empty makeup containers, a beat-up washing machine, and a collection of vials that have some sort of sludgy, dark goop inside. The Nannas have already moved on from this exhibit. John doesn’t spot them anywhere.

     “Excuse me,” he asks the bored security guard, “I’m looking for something sort of like this, but for the Heir instead? Like, is there a gallery with stuff from his house in it, or…?”

     It feels weird to talk about himself in the third person. The security guard stifles a yawn.

     “If you didn’t find anything in the Prospit Galleries, I don’t know what to tell ya,” he says. “We have an Heir exhibit coming up in a couple months, but the curators are still working on everything. Really delicate stuff on loan from New Johannesburg, where all the Heir’s stuff ended up.” He jerks his head in the direction of the lobby. “You can pick up a brochure, it’ll tell you when the exhibit starts.”
     A couple of months. Damn, Dave’s timing sucks. “Hey, thanks. Um, where do curators usually work on stuff that’s not ready? Like, is there a way for the public to see the kind of jobs they do?”
      The guard looks perplexed. “What museums you go to where they let you do that?” He shakes his head. “Sorry bud. Come back in a little while and you can see more Heir artifacts than you can shake a stick at.”
      “Okay. Thanks anyway.”
      “You know, you kinda look like the Heir, too.”
     John smiles. “I get that a lot.”

     John leaves the Beauty and Hygiene exhibit and puts his hands in his pockets, making a big deal to appear as inconspicuous as possible. He mosies off to the bathroom – inconspicuously –  then slips into an empty stall – inconspicuously. The perfect crime.

     John Egbert evaporates into a gust of wind and slips through the bathroom vent.

     It’s not very fun to travel when your corporeal form has been lost, so John tries to keep wind travel brief. He wisps through the ventilation system and works his way down through the dark underbelly of the museum. Clanging metal and echoing footsteps can be heard all around, all the amplified sounds of boilers and furnaces and electrical wiring. He has very little idea of where he should be going, but continues downward anyway – anything closed to the public is usually in the basement, right? Below ground level, John billows through the narrow slits of a vent and emerges in a near pitch-black room. Regaining his footing and his sight, John blinks hard to adjust himself to the dark.

     There are rows and rows of metal cabinets on either side of him. He’s arrived in some sort of storage area, where folios or restoration projects or otherwise secret materials are stored away from the light and the heat. But despite the dark and the chill, it isn’t silent down here, because someone else is standing right in front of him.

     A dark figure has a flashlight in her teeth and is flipping quietly through the papers in one of the cabinet drawers. The only part of them John can see clearly is their hands, which are protected by surgical gloves. His heart leaps into his chest – he’s run into a museum employee! John tries to quietly tiptoe backwards into the shadows, but his heel squeaks on the tile. The figure draws in a sharp, surprised inhale, and turns to look at John.

     The bright beam of the flashlight hits him right in the eye. John curses and covers his glasses with one hand, but he thinks the person he walked in on is cursing even more. They spit a few nasty phrases John has never even heard before.

     “Sorry!” he says, “Sorry, I, really, I just happened to get lost and–”
     “Shut up!” they snap. The flashlight lowers a bit, and John sees that the speaker is a human woman with dark hair, her bangs streaked with a shock of gray. “Turn around and shut your trap, before your friends hear you.”
      “My… friends?”
      She seizes John by the wrist and turns him around, and is surprised when she ties them together with a zip tie. “Now, don’t go hollering, I’ve got a full roll of duct tape on me, too.”
      “Do you –  um, is this standard security protocol? I think we got off on the wrong foot.”
      “Security?” Now it’s the woman who’s surprised. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
      “You work here, right?”
      The woman pauses for a long moment. “Are you fucking with me?”
      “No?” The woman keeps staring, or at least it feels like she is, so John says, “Oh, well this is embarrassing.”
      “You mean to tell me that you don’t?” asks the woman. 

     She spins him by the shoulder and examines him for a lanyard, or a badge, or a name tag of any sort. Finding none, she looks at him like he’s the weird one, and not the one who started this interaction with a threat to the other’s life.

     “How’d you get down here?” she asks. It’s less of a question and more of a demand.
     “I told you, I got lost and ended up down here.”
      “No you didn’t. You know how many hoops you have to jump through to get here from above? And during the day no less?”
      John blinks. “There’s more than one way to get here?”
      She pinches the bridge of her nose. “Of course there – okay. Okay. What’s your deal?”
     “Are you a burglar?”

     The woman produces a roll of duct tape and unrolls it with one loud snapping motion, which is warning enough for John not to say the b-word out loud.

     “You really don’t work here, do you?” she asks, marveling. Her intense studying of his face makes John nervous. “You would’ve tripped an alarm by now if you did.”
     “I guess so, if I knew how to do that, and if I was certain you wouldn’t kill me.”

     This was the right thing to say, apparently. The woman stifles her laughter. She clicks her flashlight to a dimmer setting, and the two of them glow with a soft yellow.

      “You must be one hell of a weirdo to have gotten down here the way you did. You talk a big game about being an oblivious idiot–”
      “Hey!”
      “– but something’s up with you, and I could use you on my team.”
      “Are you asking me to help you ste–”
      “Shut it! Why are you so loud? And don’t say the s-word either.”
      “Don’t say ‘steal.’ Got it.”
      She gives him a withering look. “If we’re gonna be a duo here, we should get friendly. What’s your name?”
      “John Egbert.”
      “Middle name?”
      “I don’t have one.”
      She blinks slowly, unamused and not entirely unconvinced that he’s being truthful. “Okay, John Egbert, Generic Everyman, if that is your real name. The name’s Fortunata. Fortunata Eglish.”
      “English?”
      “Eglish.”
      “That’s kind of dumb.”
      “It’s kind of dumb for you to have never heard one of the most common names a person can have!” she snaps. “Look, Egbert, you might as well tell me what you’re really doing down here now that we’ve gotten acquainted.”
     John looks at the floor. “I heard there was an exhibit on the Heir being worked on, and I was hoping they’d be storing some of the stuff down here.”
     Fortunata’s face breaks into a huge grin. “Well, John Egbert, you ran into the right girl. When we’re finished, we’ll spit our earnings even.”

     She turns him around again, and John hears the flick of a pocketknife being unsheathed. His restraints are cut, and he rubs his wrists.

     “I guess I’m following your lead, huh?” he asks.
     Fortunata smirks. “You catch on quick.”

     Something about being recruited by an art thief feels like it should get John’s adrenaline pumping more than it is. Maybe it’s because all this jumping through time has made every situation they stumble into feel like it’s not quite real, like it’s all transient and temporary. And it basically is. When your visitations with the mortals of Earth C morph into legends and fairytales in the centuries you’ve been gone, it’s hard to conceptualize your actions as holding any consequence in the moment. John is already formulating how he’s going to get out of this little pickle he’s wandered into, or if he can’t, how the Four Spheres – a term he still doesn’t understand, by the way – will bastardize it beyond belief when he’s gone. Heir of Breath accessory in burglary of National Museum, the headline will read. It doesn’t even sound real, so it doesn’t feel real to John, either. He just breezes alongside Fortunata and does as she asks and tries not to get too rankled about it, because at the end of the day, he’s still conditionally immortal, and he can still vanish into a puff of air at the slightest inconvenience.

     Fortunata keeps her flashlight low, whisking it across the gleaming basement tiles. They skulk through rows upon rows of cabinets, so much so that it feels like navigating through a labyrinth. Then she stops so suddenly that he nearly runs into her. She motions for him to follow her to the left.

     “Aren’t there cameras down here?” John asks.
     “Be quiet, your whispering is loud,” she says. “Of course there are cameras, fool. I just tapped into them before I came down. Right now, the security office is watching footage from last week.”
      “Are you some kind of hacker too?”
      “No, I have a guy who does most of that stuff for me.” Fortunata glances over her shoulder. “Why, you like hacking?”
      “I used to like programming and coding and all that kinda stuff, but I was never any good at it.”
      “Shame. Lot of money to be had in that department, over the table or otherwise. Figured you’d have to be a hacker to get past the clog to the keycard system.”
      “Clog?”
      “The doors down here shouldn’t be allowing employees to enter. They think it’s being treated for spiders or something, who knows, I forget whatever pedestrian reason my buddy came up with. So he either did a shit job, or you outsmarted the jam.”
     John doesn’t say anything.

     They come to a door with a sign beside it that’s illegible in the dark. Fortunata fiddles with the lock until it pops open. She slips inside, and John follows her.

     Inside, there is a collection of things John thought he would never see again.

     They’re ancient, and they’re a little worse for wear, but they’re his. This room is a workshop, the walls hung with pegboards and dusty work tables and things hidden under tarps. This is where the curators have been storing the Heir’s artifacts, unpacking and cleaning and working on signage to prepare for the exhibition’s debut. Some things are immediately recognizable. John’s father liked to collect matching sets of canisters for flour, sugar, salt – any number of baking materials, lined up neatly along the countertop. John recognizes the flour canister, a porcelain jar with a pattern like braided rope etched into it. It’s a little cracked, but in good condition. He also spies a number of lighting fixtures in separate pieces, and a cheeky harlequin figure that’s missing half its face. Other artifacts take a little more studying before John realizes what they are. There’s a chunk of Nanna’s shattered urn. An oil-stained piece of his bedsheet. The bottom half of the bathroom rug, the clown’s face still discernible.

     There are other things stored here, too. A portrait of Casey von Salamancer done in the 3200s, in which she rests her webbed foot atop a skull, her nubby arm tucked into her robe in Napoleonic defiance. A delicate diorama of what John’s house looked like in its prime, as guesstimated by the people of this world. It’s a little fanciful and not very accurate, but John gets a kick out of all the teensy furniture inside.

     He doesn’t know what to grab first.

     On the other side of the room, Fortunata Eglish is hurriedly swiping things into something that looks like a sylladex. Like an upgraded version of it. Whatever the pseudo-sylladex is, it seems to resist being put to work. John wonders if places like museums have strongholds against captchalogue systems in order to prevent people like Forunata from making off with priceless treasures. She shoves something wrapped in brown paper into her sylladex, and when she catches John’s eye, he looks away.

     “Don’t touch anything,” she snips. “You’re not wearing gloves.”

     John has already touched a broken dinner plate with its edges painted blue and yellow, but doesn’t say anything.

      “You got a sylladex on you?” she asks. Then she shakes her head. “Scratch that, yours won’t work. Didn’t account for a secondary accomplice.”
      Accomplice. John doesn’t think he likes the sound of that. “How much are you trying to take?”
      “Can’t afford all of it, even on the black market we’d have a hell of a time selling it off. Just what they won’t miss.” she jerks her head to the bathroom mat. “Like that? That can stay.”
      “Is there really a black market for this kind of stuff?”
      Forunata blinks at him like he’s stupid. “Of course. The Originator Market is full to bursting with fools and idiots. The real deal like this will fetch a pretty penny, but most of the knaves who end up down there pay through the nose for junk that ain’t worth the shit between your toes. Spinach juice in crystal vials sold as Sylph’s blood, birchwood shaved into sticks and peddled as genuine Quills of Echidna. They’ll believe anything you tell ‘em. Wearing a Seer’s ring will cause you to dream of your future, donning the Knight’s cloak will allow you to redo your biggest regret. Sometimes it’s more about the idea and less about the authenticity.”
      “I thought this place had UBIs.”
      She cocks her head, looking irritated. “What in Gods’ name is an oobie?”
      “Universal basic income? Why do you have to steal to make money?”
      “Were you born under a rock, John Egbert? Did a family of boulders raise you from infancy?”
      “I thought it was a pretty fair question.”
      “Many people in the world only work because they want to, yes , or because there are still jobs that can’t be done with droids. Like I said. It’s more about the idea sometimes.” Fortunata speaks with the patronizing cadence of a schoolteacher. “Wait, why am I explaining this to you? Time is not on our side. Let’s hurry and hoof it.”

     Fortunata pushes past him and produces another fresh sylladex. Now this is a surprise – can a person keep more than one on their person? John thought that having a singular captchalogue system to keep track of was confusing enough. She begins seizing the old belongings that John had just been eyeing with misty-eyed nostalgia – copies of Game Bro, a frayed volume of Computer Programming for Assholes. She’s so impersonal and brusque about it. John feels a pang of grief to see them disappear into a thief’s sylladex.

     Fortunata snatches something from a temperature-controlled cabinet, where a number of pieces are being sheltered from the chill of the storage room. John watches her passively, just observing her take all of these artifacts from his childhood home that have become legend and myth. He thinks wryly of the security system his dad set up after a string of burglaries in neighboring streets, how he put his hands on his hips and nodded with paternal approval when he was assured their home was safe from skulkers and rapscallions. John wonders what his dad would do if he saw Fortunata taking his pipes to sell on the black market.

     Hey, wait a second. His pipes!

     John grabs Fortunata’s wrist and wrenches it back so quickly that both of them are surprised. She looks at him mild interest, the streak of gray through her hair falling between her eyes.

      “Not those,” he says.
      “My, John Egbert has a bit of fight in him,” she replies. “It would be a good idea for you to let go of me, immediately.”
      “Okay,” he shrugs, “but put the pipes down.”
      “Are you a smoker?” she tries to joke, “Trying to add to your collection? You’re too young for that, aren’t you?”
      “Put the pipes down.”

     Fortunata slowly sets the pipe she’s holding down on the counter. 

     It’s rugged and aged, but John can tell it’s authentic. His dad used to buy these at the men’s stores in malls that sold fancy wallets and three-piece suits. Not yet old enough to see over the counter, John would look through the glass at all the things resting on dark green velvet among twinkling watches and burnished leather. A niche of American masculinity that doesn’t exist anymore, and its absence yawns with the enormity of what John Egbert has lost. 

     The smell of leather lingers, wisping through the open door of the cabinet. John releases Fortunata’s wrist.

     Then she winds her arm back and clocks him across the face.

     “Fuck!” John stumbles back and crashes into a countertop. “What the hell, that really hurt!”
     “Big mistake, John Egbert,” she says with a matronly cluck. She summons her strife specibus, which he anticipates will be knifekind but turns out to be lassokind. She lashes out at him, and the rope burns against his bare arms. Fortunata makes quick work of tying him to a stool that’s bolted to the floor. “Coulda had your big break, little boy. Too bad. I think we’ll be parting ways when I’m done in here.”
      “And you’re just going to leave me behind?” he asks. He feels a little stupid for asking.
      “Sure, why not. You’re the one who didn’t wear gloves before putting your mitts on precious artifacts. But hey, if you’re just an accomplice, you probably won’t get a harsh sentence.” She punctuates this thought by taking the pipes again and setting them into a plastic bag.

     Something about being a god tier has always seemed like being a superhero, like being a Sailor Scout or a Power Ranger, someone whose job it is to run around saving people and rescuing cats from trees. It’s not as simple as simple as that, John knows now, and his days of flying cars around Battlefields are long over. But every now and then he gets a pang of nostalgia for what it was like before flying lost its novelty, when it was still cool and neat and new to vanish into thin air. Now is one of those times. 

     What would Jade do, if she were in this situation? What would Dave do, what would Rose do? Is now the right time to start being a Sailor Scout again? And if not now, when?

      “Hey,” he says. “Knock, knock.”
      Fortunata barely glances at him. “Knock knock? The hell’s that mean.”
      “It’s the setup to a joke. You’re supposed to say ‘who’s there.’”
      “You’ve got a weird sense of humor, Egbert.” Fortunata empties the cabinet of pipes and moves on.
      “Knock, knock.”
      “Who’s there,” she says.
      “I’m right behind.”
      “What? That’s not even a complete sentence,” she snorts as she continues sifting through what will and won’t sell on the black market. 
      “You’re supposed to repeat what I say and add ‘who’ at the end. Knock, knock.”
      “Who’s there?”
      “I’m right behind.”
      She pauses and shoots him a look. “I’m right behind who?”

      John Egbert evaporates into a puff of air, and the lasso around his torso slumps in a pile on the floor. Fortunata yelps, and John materializes behind her.

      “I’m right behind you.”

     Fortunata swipes with her pocketknife before she even turns around, but John slips away again into wisps of Breath. He appears again in front of her and knocks the knife out of her hand. It skitters across the countertop and clangs to the floor on the other side of the room. From an outside perspective, it’s hard to know who to root for. One’s a sixteen-year-old boy with glasses, and the other is an older woman. 

     “How are you doing that?” she says, her voice strained and exasperated. This isn’t going according to plan. “What kind of transportalizer do you have on you, that shits crazy illegal. How the hell did a nerfherder like you get a hold of one?”
     “What, this?” John demonstrates his “transportalization” by blipping in and out of sight all across the room, appearing and disappearing and reappearing again. “This is nothing special.”
      “Who are you, really?” Fortunata growls, her hands clenched with fury.
      “I told you already. I’m John Egbert, no middle name. And you’re messing with my stuff.”
      Her eyes widen, and John thinks she’s having trouble believing him. “Like hell you are.”
      “I really hate to be pushy, but I’m gonna need you to empty the sylladex. Or uh, sylladex es , plural.”
      “Fuck off.”
      “I mean, I made it this far, so nah, I don’t think I will.” John shrugs. “I don’t love the fact that people are coming from all over just to see my old stuff in a display case, like, it’s kind of creepy if you think about it? But I think I’d rather have it stay here, where it’s someone’s job to look after everything and keep it safe. The black market is just… ugh!” He shivers. “Gross! I don’t want my dad’s shit to end up wherever that is.”
      “You’re fucking with me,” Fortunata says, “you are literally fucking with me. No way an Originator in the flesh came to stop someone from jacking his stuff. That shit doesn’t happen.”
      “Um, yeah, I guess it never has until now.”
      “I don’t even believe in the Originators!” she shouts, stamping the floor angrily. “I’m a fucking SBURBan Fundamentalist!”
      “That sounds stupid as hell.”
      “Yeah, well, worshiping teenagers is stupid as hell!”
      “Dude, come on. That one kinda hurt my feelings.”
      “Oh, fuck off!”

     Fortunata lunges at him, and he poofs out of the way. She falls on her face, and when she looks up from her hands and knees, she sees that the scruffy, jeans-and-hoodie wearing teenager who’s been illegally transportalizing all over the room is now wearing a bright blue costume with a trailing hood. Fortunata Eglish can be a stubborn woman, but she knows a proper Godhood when she sees one.

     “Oh, for the Four’s sake,” she mutters.
     “I thought you didn’t ‘believe,’” John says with finger quotes.

     Fortunata withers away from him. The contents of her sylladexes clatter to the floor. 

      “Many thanks, mortal,” he says in his best impression of a merciful god. “The Heir of Breath thanks you for your cooperation.” He laughs. “Man, that was dumb. I’m never doing that again.”
      “Are you going to kill me?” she asks. The directness of the questions startles him. As someone with such a dangerous job, it’s possible that Fortunata has been in many situations where she’s been uncertain whether the other party would kill her.
      “What? Jesus, no, why would I do that?”
      “Something about divine fury, I bet,” she says. She keeps low to the ground now, like a coiled snake.
      “I just wanted to see my stuff again, and protect it from getting sold to a bunch of weirdos. I’m not going to kill you, wow, do I look like I would?”
      “You look like the Heir of Breath,” she says, as if that answers the question.
      John shakes his head. “I’m not gonna kill you, Ms. English.”
      “Eglish.”
      “I am gonna turn you in, though. I think it would probably be better if art thieves weren’t breaking into museums.”
      Fortunata deflates a little. “That figures.”



     Turning in Fortunata Eglish doesn’t actually involve outing himself to the public. John breezes through the basement and unlocks all of the staff doors, and after a short amount of time, employees start to pop in. Folks with glasses and lanyards and eyeglass chains and denim pinafores turn the lights on and return to their jobs, and for the curators working on the upcoming Heir exhibit, a big surprise awaits. Soon, the security office gets a call about a wild-haired woman tied to a stool, the Heir’s artifacts scattered all about her.

     But before he leaves, before John Egbert returns through the vents to rejoin his two grandmothers, he seriously considers taking something along.

     Fortunata Eglish is not conscious at the moment. She’s slumped against a stool, wrapped up with her own strife specibus, her hair hanging before her face. The plastic bag of his father’s pipes lies by her boot. He picks it up and takes them out, inhaling the smell of leather and wood finisher.

     They say that smell is the most potent of senses, that it can yank you back to the past unlike any other. John closes his eyes, and it’s like he’s standing in his living room, the fireplace crackling, the preheat timer dinging in the kitchen, the sound of his father’s feet crossing the upstairs hall. He only ever smoked outside, or in his bedroom with his window open, so the smell of tobacco and ashes only ever lightly brushed the air when he walked by. The inside of this pipe, this ancient thing that has seen a new society rise from nothing, still smells like tobacco. 

     Tears spring to his eyes. He wants very badly to swipe the pipe, not to take up the dirty habit of smoking but just to have it, just to feel the weight of it in his pocket, to know that it’s there. John’s father always seemed immortal in his eyes. It’s awful and stupid, then, that this men’s store outlet purchase survived its owner by millennia.

     John’s hand skims the counter, where a collection of exhibition labels are printed on stiff cardstock. They’ve been knocked askew from his skirmish with Fortunata, but still mostly in order. He picks one up to read it.

     “Tobacco pipes, briar and pear wood, circa 2009,” it says. “Believed to have originated from the Heir of Breath’s childhood home, where they belonged to his father. Part of a collection of nearly five dozen pipes salvaged from the Heir’s home, this selection has often been split into parts as they traveled to museums around the world. To honor the request of the Heir Adherent, who look after the vast majority of the Heir’s possessions in New Johannesburg, the Museum of Our Glorious Originators is proud to display the largest collections of the Heir’s father’s pipes in nearly two thousand years. It is the wish of the Heir Adherent to keep such collections as complete as possible, both for the historical value they hold as well as their deep significance to the Heir himself.

     The card goes on to describe craftsmanship and design, but John sets it down and wipes his eyes dry. Something that anyone has to do if they really want to grow up is learn to become less selfish. And John Egbert, whether he realizes it or not, is pretty selfish. But today, he’s going to grow up a little. He squeezes the tobacco pipe again, willing every cell in his hand to remember how it feels, how it smells, how it makes him feel, because he may never get another chance to hold a possession of his father’s ever again.

     And after a long moment, he sets it back with its companions. Some fastidious and attentive curator will set this mess right, after Fortunata’s been hauled away, and in a couple of months, the people of Meteor Mound will get to enjoy all the things in this room, too. John Egbert isn’t the only person to whom these objects mean a great deal. It’s bigger than him now, and bigger than his nostalgia, his grief. 

     John Egbert takes a last look around the room, of the many memories that dwell here, like a college student examining his parent’s home before leaving for his freshman year. Then he exhales the breath he’s holding, and disappears into the vents.

Chapter Text

The following tale is a classic among the Heir Adherent and a favorite in New Johannesburg, which boasts the second largest collection of artifacts from the Heir’s original home. It takes inspiration from multiple iterations of the tale.



     It came to be in the final days of the Heir of Breath’s youth that he concluded it was time to take up the mantle of his father, and shed the vestments of childhood. In the old world, before the days of the flooding and the culling, boys of Old Earth would be called upon to join the rankings of their elders, to do away with their sensitivities and their worries and their frightful fears and learn to be stiff of lip and strong. This was Old Earth no longer, and no such mantle had been laid upon the shoulders of young boys for quite some time. Yet the Heir missed his father dearly, and wished to uphold the example by which he raised his son. So the Heir set out to seek the possessions of his guardian.

     The Heir of Breath’s father had been a smoker till his last days. It was not the habit itself that the Heir wished to acquire, but the old wooden pipes that he had collected in their home. They lived in lovely, shining cedar boxes, resting in velvet and displayed behind glass on shelves. They were a symbol of manhood and maturity, an ancient tradition which had died out with the rest of the Heir’s kind. Nevertheless, they were treasured by his beloved father, and so the Heir sought them out for what they had meant to their owner.

     The Heir returned to Meteor Mound, that ancient site in the woods where a satellite containing Gods had sailed through the atmosphere to crash among the underbrush. A sprawling city had sprung up in the time that the Meteor landed, and was now home to all manner of people. All Four Spheres nested in the valley that encircled the Meteor’s hill, and it was here where many possessions of the Originators still found their home. The Heir hoped he would find what he sought here. 

     Among the many terraced streets of Meteor Mound, the Heir discovered that many mortals were selling relics of dubious authenticity. One shopkeeper displayed her wares among silky, colorful scarves, all manner of lovely jewelry laid out in boxes. 

These once belonged to the Seer of Light, my boy, said she, merely place this necklace ‘round your neck, or the neck of your beloved, and have your fortune revealed to you.

     The Heir knew full well that his friend the Seer had never owned such luxuries. He continued his search, further into the city.

     At another stall, there were a pair of merchants with crates upon crates of little, finely crafted dice. They caught the eye of the Heir, and promptly they began their sales pitch.

Thief’s Dice, they said, possessed at one point by the Light-Thief herself, the luckiest of all the Originators. Merely clatter these lovely specimens across the table, and it shall tell you the likelihood with which you may achieve your goals. Which school to attend, which suitor to woo? The dice will tell you!

     The Heir did not need dice to make his decisions, for he had been guided by the Thief once, and was free to change his fate by the very nature of his Aspect. The Heir continued his search.

     At another stall, the Heir met an old man selling tobacco pipes. There were pipes of all kinds, spindly ones and curly ones, ones crafted of pear and briar and cherry wood. The shopkeeper puffed on his own pipe as the Heir approached, producing clouds of light lavender. 

Pray tell, my honorable elder, where a young man might find a smoking pipe of great age and fame? asked the Heir.
–  Look no further, my boy, as I sell the finest in all the city, answered the shopkeep. He offered a number of wares to the Heir, who only shook his head.
–  I’m afraid I seek a collection beyond what may be sold on a streetside stall, he said. I seek the pipes of the Heir’s father himself, for the desire has befallen me to acquire them, and I fear I shall never rest until I see them.

     With this, the shopkeeper fell solemn and silent. He beckoned the Heir to approach, and as he did so, the shopkeep lowered his voice till it was grim and gravelly.

–  I know of the place you seek, young man, if you be brave and keep your wits about you, said he. Find by here an alley flanked with bushels of baby’s breath, and upon descending the steps, give the doorman this password. The old man wrote upon a slip of paper and slid it to the Heir. Here, all manner of fantastical things are available for sale, leagues beyond the junk and drivel you have no doubt seen today. Go there, and find what you look for.

     The shopkeep tapped the side of his nose and sent the Heir on his way, who was quite grateful to have been given such help. He walked a while until he came across the arched threshold to a dark and dingy alley, the stairs of which wound down, down, down until he could not see the bottom. It stood beneath the shadow of a grand museum, but mortals took care to avoid it. Ivy crept along the stone walls on either side, and the Heir could spy among the leaves many budding blooms of baby’s breath. Upon spotting the white flowers, he knew he was nearing the end of his quest. He descended the steps, and shortly came across a dark and soot-stained door. He rapt upon the door, and a hidden panel slid aside to reveal a pair of distrusting yellow eyes. 

–  Password? asked the troll.
–  “Aggrieve,” answered the Heir.

     The panel slid aside, and the Heir was granted access to the underground market of Originators.

     Indeed, the shopkeeper had not lied – the market was teeming with sounds and sights and smells of unparalleled wonder. The Heir sensed within his heart that many old artifacts of his comrades made their temporary home here, before being sold to whoever had the heaviest pocket. Animal chattering and ringing of bells could be heard. In cages, the Heir spied snow white hunting hounds, their peddler claiming that they were at one time part of the Witch’s retinue. A number of palm-sized dragon hatchlings climbed the walls of a glass tank as their seller told onlookers that the tealblooded beasts could teach the blind to see. 

     As the Heir traversed the throngs of shady figures, he saw things he recognized and things he did not. He saw cloaks belonging to the Knight of Blood sold for their protective, near invincibility-granting powers. He saw vials of rainbow elixirs said to cure the curse of the rainbow drinker. He saw jewelry and garments and weaponry and tomes supposed to have been owned by the Originators. He even saw trinkets and baubles which bore the mark of the Heir himself. In the dark doorway of a decrepit shop, he watched a woman sell a bag of rabbit’s stuffing, which could be sewn into a child’s favorite toy in order to ensure sweet dreams of flying through the blue sky. The stuffing, he thought, was a sham. Many items here would likely be junk, despite what the old man had told him.

     After some time, the Heir entered a new alley altogether. The market was as twisting and confused as a labyrinth, and he found that he was unsure how he ended up here. The smell of bitter, spicy smoke hung in the air. He followed the scent, and shortly came across a dimly-lit store selling smoking pipes. In the lantern light, the Heir saw tobacco pipes like the ones his father had owned, but many others, too – tall, slender hookahs, clay chillums and gem-encrusted chibouk. There did not appear to be a shopkeeper working, so he browsed the shelves in hopes of finding what he was looking for. And in a tall, crystal case under lock and key, he spied it – one of his father’s old tobacco pipes, inlaid in silver with his initials and carved from briar wood. It had been one of his personal favorites, and the Heir saw his father smoke it often. His heart seized with nostalgia.

–  Ah, a fine taste you have, young man, came a croaking voice. The Heir jumped in surprise, and as he turned he met with the face of a stooped over, haggard human woman. Her wild hair was streaked with gray curls. You’ve taken a liking to the one right there, no?
–  You speak true, madam, replied he, I’m quite infatuated with it, but tell me, do others of its kind live here?
The woman went silent and rubbed her chin. After a moment, she bade him to follow her. If it be what you seek, I will show you its brothers.

     She led him down a short flight of steps and into a chilly basement. Here, items too precious to be displayed for the public were closely safeguarded.. The woman went to a mahogany chest and unlocked it with a great iron key. Inside, there was a collection of his father’s pipes that he thought he would never lay eyes on again. Almost each one was accounted for, in exceptional condition, remarkably well cared for despite their age. He moved to touch one, but the woman swatted his hand away.

Precious artifacts, she said, not to be handled by wanton hands. 
–  Tell me, madam, how much do you desire for the whole set?

     The woman told him their price, and the Heir laughed.

Surely you jest.
–  Surely I do not, replied she.
Might I ask where you procured these goods ?
The woman’s eyes turned cold and stony. Certainly you may not.
–  Through no unseemly means, I hope?
–  Do I seem like the kind of lady who would sell stolen goods?
– Now, I said nothing of stealing, replied the Heir, but I have been searching for these very items, and they are dearer to my heart than you may imagine. I am willing to pay the price, as it looks to me that they have been maintained well and with respect. Yet I would have it ascertained that they fell into your care through legitimate means.
The shopkeeper harrumphed. These once belonged to my only son, before he fell ill and bequeathed them to me.
– And before they belonged to him?
–  Why! I will not be insulted under my own roof.
–  Again, madam, who owned them before him?
–  It is my recollection that my son obtained them from a chest in the woods, where they had been long forgotten and buried by the roots of many trees.

     Now it was the Heir’s turn to be incredulous. Here was a hidden world full of cheats and schemers and liars, peddling that which was forged or stolen or faked. He knew full well that the woman was lying, that his father’s pipes were stolen, that they were waiting to be sold to some underhanded villain with only an eye for money. With a stern frown of disapproval, he looked down his nose at the merchant.

–  This story is most curious to me, for I have recently been to the Museum of Our Glorious Originators, where I was told that a number of the Heir’s old relics were stolen in recent years. Pilfered from beneath their own eyes, never to be recovered.
–  What has this to do with me, stranger?
–  Are these not the stolen artifacts themselves?
The woman huffed and puffed, her face a ruddy shade of fury. I would have thee leave my shop!
–  I would have thee return my father’s belongings, most wicked of fiends.

     At this, a great and stormy gust of wind swept through the basement. It blustered and billowed and blew everything askew. The God of Breath raised his hands to the sky.

–  A mighty err it is, madam, to thieve from the family of an Originator and attempt to hide away your crime like some common field mouse, he said. 
–  I know not of what you accuse me! she cried.
–  Still you lie in the face of an Originator? Are you lionhearted or merely a fool? spoke the Heir.

     It was true that the Heir was in search of his father’s old pipes, that he might honor his memory and ensure their safety. But it was also true that he had come to learn of their disappearance, where they had previously been installed as a permanent fixture in a public museum. While the Heir deeply wanted to keep them for himself, he knew the great power it held to the people for whom he had helped create this world. He knew that the sight of them could stir inspiration and awe in children for many years to come, just as they had during the earliest days of the Heir’s boyhood. The museum had lost hope of ever recovering the priceless treasures, and so it fell upon his son to recover what was taken.

Surrender what it not yours to sell, madam, and I may yet allow you to keep your life, he commanded.
Yet the woman was stubborn and proud. You will not order me about as a wench!
The Heir knocked everything aside with a mighty vortex of wind. You will respect your Originators, and relinquish what is stolen.
She cowered before an Originator’s strength, for she was not a true believer, and was shaken to her very core to see the full power of Breath. Enough, enough! If you will leave me be, I give them over to you to keep!

 

     And so it was that the Heir was reunited with his father’s precious collection. They looked just as he remembered, shining and finely crafted, and he knew it would bring the museum great delight to have them returned. The pipes were returned to the Museum of Our Glorious Originators, which to this very day is decorated with a marvelous copper fountain honoring the Heir and his dedication to righting what is wrong, and setting right the path of thieves. His deed was responsible for the eventual collapse of a great deal of the Originators market, for word spread of divine retribution that followed the thieving of holy relics. Items thought long lost or stolen made their ways to museums and galleries across the land, so that the public might enjoy them for their irreplaceable value. Thus, it is for this reason that the Heir Adherent call him the Hand of Justice, Buster of Thieves, and seek his assistance when struggling to rediscover something lost and precious. As the leader of the Originators and first to wear the holy robes of godhood, the Heir is revered for having a strong sense of judgment, and ensuring fairness in all things.

 

 

The end.

Chapter Text

     The year 5016 is marvelous, because everything is fresh and new.

 

     Everything about this world is amazing! Surprises hide behind every corner, and there are fantastic people and things and food and cities and animals and flowers and buildings every which way you look. It isn’t hard to make your own fun on Earth C –  fun tends to find you whether you’re looking for it or not. This has been true for every era they’ve hopped through, every quiet century and breathtaking decade they’ve danced and stumbled and skipped into, never knowing what was around the corner. The only thing they’ve failed to find, however, are any of their other friends.

     There is a city along the coastline of Terranova that is populated largely by trolls and nakodiles. The two populations keep to themselves, mostly, mingling among the streets only for business. A large island that looms off of the edge of Hemeran, Terranova is a favorite among the Trollian Sphere. And Aradia thinks she can tell why. The temperature is cool and mild, like late Alternian nights after the sweltering sun had sunk. The two moons, Aglibol-B and Morrigan-S3, twinkle even in the midday sun. They are not pink and green, but Morrigan-S3 is a light shade reminiscent of a pear. Nostalgia blooms in her chest when she looks up at them, even if – for all intents and purposes – Alternia was not a very nice place to live. Earth C, however, is a dream.

     “Take for example, this lovely… this wonderful thing right here,” Aradia says through her brain freeze. She’s sitting on a cobblestone wall and swinging her legs, munching on a melon-flavored popsicle. “It’s a true testament to the time less nature of this world’s unique culture. Despite all of the differences of the many sentient species that settle here, they return to the tried and true. And what we are left with is–”
     “A regular popsicle, utterly unexceptional in every way,” Sollux says without looking up. 

     He’s idling on his phone, leaning against the wall beside her. Sollux has made a big show thus far of being terribly inconvenienced by their journeys. Time travel has been tough on him, too, Aradia knows. But they still have to catch up to their friends! Everywhere they end up, it’s as if they just missed the train. Their friends are gone, with only legends and folktales in their wake. And such fun they seem to have! Saving museums from thieves, fighting warriors in the desert, fending off dragons and bringing bishops back to life. It all sounds so exhilarating, and Aradia wishes sorely that they could be there in the flesh. Wherever or whenever they travel, though, the Originators are already gone. It’s a big game of chicken that Aradia is getting quite tired of losing.

     On his phone, Aradia can see that Sollux is flipping through a database of newspaper archives, the search term “Originator” highlighted in yellow. He has one earbud plugged in, listening to the text-to-speech dictation. She smiles.

     “What we are left with, I was going to say, is a cultural staple that reaches across all boundaries.” She bites into the popsicle and shivers again. “Are you sure you don’t want a bite?”
     “Yes.”
     “Yes, you do want a bite?”
     “No, I don’t want that thing, you’ve slobbered on it already.”
     Aradia sighs in a what-am-I-to-do-with-you sort of way.

     At the edge of the universe, at the end of all things, with all the many shards of Paradox Space falling through empty alabaster into what was once the Lord of Time’s sister, Aradia stared in wonder and thought that nothing would ever compare to this. As her last chance to flee began to close in on her, she grabbed Sollux and followed her trail of pixie dust back to the Victory Platform, which was now floating in an empty Medium, its planets vanished along with its inhabitants. They slipped through the door just as it was closing, crash-landing into a world so astonishingly green and bright that she had to fight back the urge to roll around in the grass. But the Originators were already gone.

     Aradia has rolled around in the grass plenty of times since then.

     “Doesn’t the sun feel amazing? Doesn’t it make you wanna get up and do stuff?”
     “It feels like I’m not suffering fourth-degree burns,” he says. His response is slow and faltering, because he’s still trying to listen to the dictation on his phone. “It does not make me want to do anything, because we have been doing something absolutely unendurable and idiotic since we got here.”
     “They have all been very endurable things, and only a little bit idiotic.” Aradia pops the bare popsicle stick into the corner of her mouth and stretches her arms over her head.

     It feels nice to be outside in the sun and not have your skin scorched off your bones. A lot of bodies that she used to find decomposing in trenches probably died that way. She would poke around with a stick and turn them over to see what their faces looked like in their final moments, their skin in various stages of tissue edema, their burns like thick bubbles in a boiling stew. Aruna Prime feels very pleasant in comparison. Trolls are still a naturally nocturnal species, so the number of trolls walking about at this time of day isn’t a lot, but from what Aradia has gleaned from their journeys thus far is that many of her Sphere – such a fun phrase to say! – align themselves to a diurnal schedule for work, or their friends, or for their relationships. Being diurnal here must not be so bad. This is the kind of weather that makes you want to break out a new outfit and take a stroll around the town.

     For what feels like the past quadrillion-billion years, Aradia has only been wearing her Maid garb, and while she would never dare to talk smack about its excellent tailoring and fuzzy flannel lining, it is her understanding that the gods of this world like to be on the “down low.” And if everything here is different and new, shouldn’t her outfit be, too? So she’s set aside the godhood and the fairy wings for something less comfortable but more pedestrian – breezy, lightweight jackets over baggy t-shirts and camisoles, distressed jeans and camouflage capris with drawstrings that do a fine job of hiding the mud and grime she gets herself into. Sollux did not change his outfit because he did not trust Aradia to pick his clothes for him. He looks the same as always. That’s sort of comforting to Aradia. Everything has changed, but her best friend has not.

     Best friend? Hm. Moirail, maybe? She has floated the word in public before, and teenagers give her odd looks and condescending snickers. She’s barely older than any of these twerps, but suddenly she feels a trillion years old. Are quadrants not a thing anymore? Are the two of them behind the times? No doubt about it – Aradia and Sollux are totally out of the cultural loop. 

     “What? What’d you say, I’m kind of in the middle of something,” Sollux mutters.
     Aradia cocks her head. “Huh? I didn’t say anything.”
     “What was that then?” Sollux looks around, not because he can see anything but from force of habit.

     The cobblestone wall Aradia perches on overlooks a silty slope that leads down to the shore. Not the kind of shore you’d build sandcastles on, but a rocky and narrow strip of sand. The nakodiles sometimes build their homes down here, and it’s a number of nakodiles that are kicking up a ruckus down below. Their distant squalling reaches Aradia’s ears – a horrible, pitiful quacking noise. She can only pick out a few of their words.

     “Oh, no! Sollux, look!”
     “I can’t.”
     “I mean, Sollux, um – listen! Do you hear the consorts crying?”
     “I hear what sounds like a purrbeast being put through a taffy puller.”
     “It’s the little guys down on the beach!” She squishes her face between her hands. “I think high tide flooded some of their houses!”
     “If they live on the beach then they know that high tide is a thing,” he responds as his thumbs tap his keyboard. “Consorts are dumb as hell, AA. They probably have goldfish memory and keep forgetting that their houses will get wrecked.”
     “Sollux, I am surprised at you! For that bigoted statement alone, you have officially volunteered yourself to help me investigate.”
     “Volunteer to what n– hey!”

     Sollux squawks as Aradia takes his wrist without warning and drags him down the slope. It isn’t until moments like these that she realizes how much she depended on her cute little pixie wings. Her cleats skid against the rocks, and Sollux fires a stream of expletives as he struggles to stay upright. They slide to a halt at the shore, where tall grass tickles their legs. Rocks of many amber hues are strewn in the sand, rubbed round over time by the ocean.

     On the shore, a cluster of nakodiles are all in a tizzy. A row of thatched-roof huts are collapsing, having had their structural integrity threatened by high tide. Saltwater seeps into their tiny doorways. A nakodile is gathering its things from inside a hut before the whole thing caves in, its stumpy tail wagging through the doorway. An elderly nakodile shakes its head sagely and puffs on a long cigarette holder.

     “What seems to be the matter, folks?” Aradia asks with all the misplaced enthusiasm of an out of touch youth pastor. Sollux doesn’t have to see her to know she’s got her fists on her hips.
     “Oh, young lady, our mighty mother the Sea has seen to it to destroy our humble homes,” rasps the old nakodile answers. Two streams of cigarette smoke exhale through his nostrils. “We must build anew before the setting of the sun is upon us.
     “It’s just as I thought,” she sighs to Sollux.
     “Can you actually understand what they’re saying or are you just fucking with me.”
     “Sure I can. Can’t you?”
     Sollux shakes his head.
     Aradia leans forward and rests her hands on her knees to speak with the nakodile at eye level. “Sir, if I could just make a humble suggestion and say that it might be a good idea to build your homes farther away from shore? Otherwise your cute little houses will just keep getting washed away!”
     “Of course we know the risk, young lady, and please do not call our homes ‘cute,’ we consider it a touch patronizing.”
     “Oh! I’m sorry.”
     “It is no matter,” he says with a wave of his hand. “Our bloodline has long lived at the cradle of the Ocean, and are well acquainted with the impartial nature of her destruction. We believe that persistence in building anew is what makes us resilient and strong.”
     
“I see. So you plan on just rebuilding and rebuilding forever?”
     The nakodiles nods.

     Aradia frowns and looks to the sky. She wonders for how many centuries these little critters – whoops, noble consorts – have been steadfastly rebuilding their destroyed homes. She won’t admit that Sollux is right, because he tends to be rude when he’s right, but the nakodiles here don’t seem to know what’s good for them. If only there was a way she could help them out, to make their lives easier.

     She looks to the twin moons in the sky. Aglibol-B and Morrigan-S3 look like they’re floating one above the other, but in reality they’re on entirely separate orbital paths, lightyears away from one another. In the old days, Earth only had one satellite. Maybe two is too many? Hm, but Jade probably already did the math when she chose these moons for Earth. Jade always seemed like she had a good head on her shoulders, with a mind for foresight like many Time players do. With how small the two moons are, and their distance from the Earth, Aradia doubts that they’ve made the changing of the tides much more severe.

     “Are you quite certain you wouldn’t like help?” she asks again.
     “You are kind to offer a hand, miss, but we are long accustomed to the ebb and flow of the Sea’s whims,” the elder says. “You needn’t worry yourselves with us.
     “I don’t know what the fuck he just said, but it sounds like we aren’t welcome,” Sollux says. “We’re just making ourselves a nuisance. Let’s go.”

     Like we just said – when Sollux is right, he’s usually not polite about it. Aradia reluctantly agrees. The two of them turn and trudge back up to the edge of the city.

 



     The sun is setting on Terranova, and more trolls are emerging from their homes. Groups of teenagers roam the streets, kicking rocks and laughing loudly and eating street food. 

     “Sollux,” Aradis postures, slouched in a streetside cafe’s lawn chair, “do you think we’re behind the times?”
     “You mean behind the times,” he says with an eyebrow waggle that still ends up looking bland.
     “See, I knew you still know how to have fun.”
     “I have never heard that word before and resent being associated with it.” The shadow of his lisp still remains, just a trace of his old habit. She doesn’t point it out, but she finds it endearing.

     Sollux munches on something akin to French toast, if they knew what French toast was to begin with. Sollux often forgets that he needs food to live. It’s not a symptom of time travel, just poor housekeeping in those neurons of his. They’ve stopped to eat dinner at Aradia’s insistence. She bounces her foot and watches the people walking by.

     “I mean, I think according to this society’s rules, we are seriously uncool!”
     “I’m going to ignore the fact that you just insinuated I am uncool.”
     “I always think you’re cool, Sollux. I don’t know if the teens do, though.”
     “We’re teens too, AA.”
     “Are we? Gosh, the bubbles have me all mixed up.”

     There’s a table beside them where two troll girls are chatting over glasses of iced tea. One of them doesn’t wear any signifier of her blood color, but the other is wearing a maroon sweater, so Aradia assumes she’s one of her own caste. Half of the words they’re saying go completely over her head.

     “Like, I don’t know what his dealing is, you know?” says No Caste as she twirls her hair around her finger. “I always think he’s wanting to go date-wise, like? But then the next day he’ll be totally liggy with me. Like, what?”
     “Excuse me,” Aradia pitches in. Sollux covers his face with his hand, his face turning a darker shade of saffron. “What was that word just now? Litty?”
     No Caste stares blankly, but Maroon turns in her chair to raise an eyebrow at her. Aradia was wrong – her sweater is maroon, but the pigmentation in the corner of her eyes is a light shade of cobalt. “‘Liggy?”
     “Yeah, that!”
     The two girls exchange looks. No Caste says, “You know… like… like caliginous? It’s like, ugh, what’s the word?” She snaps her fingers.
     “It’s like, an abbreviation,” Maroon says.
     “Yes, that.”
     “I didn’t think people still had kismeses nowadays,” Aradia marvels.

     The girls look perplexed and a bit freaked out. Sollux buries his face further. 

     “I mean… if you’re an annoying sociology student, maybe?” They laugh like the joke is obvious. It isn’t. “Kind of oldschool, innit?”
     “Hey, how old are you?” Maroon asks. “Did you like, crawl outways from the second millennium or somewhats?”
     “Shh,” No Caste giggles, and they turn away from Aradia’s table. The conversation is cut short.
     “I don’t know why you do that,” Sollux laments.
     “What? It’s important to get to know society. Blend in with the locals, y’know? When in Troll Rome, do as the Troll Romans do.”
     Sollux sighs. “No, AA, people don’t have kismeses anymore, they just schoolfeed you about all that and it enters the vernacular naturally. Quadrants were all a bunch of fake bullshit cooked up by the highbloods in order to force trolls to compartmentalize their feelings of comradery, thus curtailing the amount of friends that one had because of the need to place every relationship into one of four categories. Less friends equals less comrades equals less likelihood of mass protest.”
     Aradia sips her drink. “I always thought we had a lot of friends.”
     Sollux snorts. “We were a bunch of rejects, AA. That’s why we all died in a series of freak accidents and psychopathy.”

     The two girls must still be eavesdropping, because they turn their faces slightly when Sollux’s voice raises.

     “Do you think quadrants are bullshit, Sollux?”
     He gives a noncommittal shrug. “It takes the pressure off to not think about it.”
     “Do you feel differently about our being moirails, then?”
     The corners of his mouth twitch. “I think you don’t need words like that to define how you feel about someone.”
     This is a satisfactory answer for now. Aradia stirs her drink with her spoon. “I wonder how the Grub fills her slurry quota,” she wonders.
     Sollux blushes a deep shade of gold. “Oh my god, AA, that was just to fuel the constant demand for interstellar fleets, paired with the fact that most trolls ended up being blood and guts between a drone’s feet,” he says with exasperation. “People don’t go piking wigglers left and right anymore, they get coddled back to health when they’re sick. And no one’s banging down your door to get a bucket of your slurryshit, so the Mother Grub doesn’t churn out as many grubs in her clutches. You can literally read this in any book.” He gestures to his phone.
     “What a wonderful world,” Aradia says. “Boy, and I thought the desegregation of jadebloods was something! I would just love to chat with Kanaya about all of this.”
     Sollux goes quiet at the mention of their friend. Cranky as he might be, he still misses his friends.

     Crickets are chirping now. After some time, No Caste and Maroon take their dirty dishes inside the cafe and leave. When they come back outside, there’s an adult bronzeblood waiting outside for them. 

     “Hey, Ma,” Maroon says.
     “Hey kiddo.” She ruffles Maroon’s hair, and the three of them walk back to wherever they came from.
     Aradia gives Sollux a look, and although he can’t see her, he holds up his hand before she can ask another question. “Yes, AA, some trolls get raised by adults.”
     “But… why?”
     “I don’t know, I guess some kids don’t want to play zookeeper.”
     Aradia rests her face in her hands. “I liked my lusus.”
     “I liked my lusus, too. It’s not like lusii aren’t a thing anymore.” Just as he’s saying this, a young troll walks by the cafe with an alligator lusus waddling beside him, its tail swishing along the sidewalk.
     “I wonder if I would have liked being raised by an adult,” she ponders.
     “An adult probably wouldn’t have liked you digging around in the dirt for shitty old bones.”
     “They weren’t shitty, they were very cool bones!”
     “Whatever you say.”

     Aradia takes their dishes inside and pays the owner a handful of crowns. She doesn’t have Roxy to forge government documentation for her, but she’s still an archeologist at heart, and finds most of their money through metal detecting, digging in opportune spots, or completing side quests for NPCs. Okay, that last part was a joke. When they finally catch up to their friends, though, Aradia thinks she would like to do this all day, digging through rock beds for the ancient artifacts of Old Earth. As she comes back out, she can hear the ocean lapping at the shore. The two moons are bright in the sky now, and they reflect their colors on the rippling waves.

     They leave the cafe and start walking again. At his insistence, Sollux no longer relies on Aradia to be his seeing eye troll. He unfolds his walking cane and skims it across the sidewalk as they go along, hissing against the cobblestones. Aradia still wants to hook her arm in his – force of habit – but respects his sudden increased desire for independence on Earth C. He won’t say so, but she thinks he doesn’t want to be a burden on his friends when they all eventually meet up again. Maybe he wants to impress Terezi, if she’s even here at all. Aradia thinks that if the Other Seer were to be dwelling on Earth C, they’d have heard folktales by now. It’s already been so long since they’ve seen their friends, though, and Aradia doesn’t want to rain on the parade by suggesting they’ll never see her again. So she says nothing, and lets him use his walking cane in peace.

     They came to Terranova because of its dense trollian population, in the hopes that they would get closer to pinning down one of their old friends. A lot of their journeys have been like this. Visiting Mothermount University and hounding ectobiology students for leads, traversing River-Roost by foot to pour over old library records. All this aimless wandering. It’s never bothered Aradia, this constant flux, never staying in any one place, seeing all the wild and absurd sights paradox space has to offer. Sollux is getting tired of it, though. He’s the dictionary definition of a homebody, all he wants is to settle down somewhere with his computers and his beehives and be left alone. It’s hard to ignore his mounting agitation.

     They’ll have to travel somewhere else soon. Probably on a boat, since Terranova is an island. Being on the beach is nice, though – it makes their adventure seem more like a vacation. A group of gulls squall as they fly past the twin moons, which are now obscured by the nighttime fog. The tiny pinpricks of stars are all lost in the haze.

     “I wonder if those little guys were able to rebuild their village,” she sighs. “It makes me so sad to think they have no place to sleep.”
     “They’re animals, AA, I think they’ll be okay.”
     “They are not animals, Sollux, they are adorable critters who need their cute little houses to sleep and eat and live in!”
     “Well, they didn’t want your help, so I’m perfectly okay with just washing my hands of it.”

     Aradia makes an incredulous noise. As they walk past the city wall, she peers over the stone to look down at the rocky shore. Sure enough, the nakodiles are still trying to patch things up, even after the sun has sunk. Gas lanterns are burning as they climb little ladders to mend the thatched roofs of their huts.

     “Aw, Sollux, look.”
     “I can’t.”
     “They’re trying so hard to fix their houses,” she clucks. “They probably have to do it every day, probably more than once a day! Why don’t they build them on stilts?”
     “Because they’re stupid?”
     “Sollux! Regardless of whether or not they are stupid, they still need help. High tide is fast approaching, and all their work will be undone.”
     “AA, look, they’re basically like Troll Sisyphus, right?”
     “Huh?”
     “Doing the same stupid task over and over, knowing it’s useless in the end. It’s probably part of their weird consort religion.”
     Aradia scratches her head. “They did say that rebuilding was part of their beliefs, or something like that.”
     “See? It’s not a disaster for them, so don’t feel bad for them. If they had any sense, they wouldn’t live so close to the water.”

     That might be true, but it seems awfully sad. Isn’t Earth C supposed to be a wonderful and perfect place where robots do all the hard work and nakodiles with stubby arms don’t have to constantly fix the remnants of their destroyed homes? Okay, maybe it isn’t perfect. Nevertheless, Aradia still can’t help but think that it’s her duty to help. That’s what any of the other gods would do, and Aradia would very much like to earn her stripes as a capital-O Originator. 

     “Sollux, you are going to hate me forever, but we’re going back down there.”
     “What? AA, no, I don’t want t–”

     He protests indignantly as Aradia once more takes his hand. There’s a break in the wall where a rickety set of wooden stairs leads down to the beach, and she keeps his hand clasped in hers so he doesn’t tumble face first. At the bottom of the steps, he jabs the sand nervously with his walking cane.

     “The hell, AA!”
     “As I said, you are going to hate me forever, but I would like a teensy bit of help with this.”
     “What’s ‘this.’ What are you doing?”
     Aradia toes the sand. “We don’t have to help them rebuild if they don’t want us to, and we can’t force them to move farther away from the tide….”
     “I don’t like where this is going.”
     “So maybe we could fix the problem in a different way?”
     “How.”
     “I was thinking maybe we could push the moons away a little bit?”
     Sollux stares blankly in what he thinks is Aradia’s direction. “What.”
     “We can just move them f–”
     “No I heard you clearly, I was just hoping you would see the face I’m making right now and realize how spectacularly dumb that idea is.”
     “It’s not dumb!”
     “It is. It so totally is.”
     “You’re dumb!”
     “No I’m not.”

     They jabber on like this until they garner the attention of a few nakodiles who are reassembling their house. High tide is closing in, and they don’t have much time to finish before the water laps at their feet once more, but they pause anyway to investigate the two loudmouthed trolls bickering on their beach.

     “Excuse me madam,” says one nakodile, “Can we be of assisting to you?”
     “Oh, there they are again, the goat girl and her blind friend,” says the other. “The one who wished to help us with our persistence.
     “Did she?” asks the first. “How kind. Though of course, there is no need for us to accept the labors of an outsider. For we are quite content to toil amongst ourselves.
     “That can’t possibly be true,” Aradia clucks. “You aren’t finished working yet, and high tide is coming any moment now! All of your efforts will be swept away.”
     The nakodiles nod. “Yes, yes, all in accordance with nature.
     “I don’t understand why this is rankling you so bad,” Sollux says. “This is exactly the kind of weirdo anarcho-nihilist shit I thought you of all people would be into.”
     “I’m not an anarcho-nihilist.”
     “You sort of are though.”
     “I’m not….” Aradia sighs. “Try to put yourself in our friends’ shoes. Isn’t this the exact sort of situation that, say, Calliope would get into? Or Jade?”
     “Who the hell is Calliope.”
     “Oh, my gosh. Listen. If we can’t manage to find the rest of them by ourselves, why don’t we have them come to us?”
     Sollux cocks his head. “I’m listening.”
     “Let’s do something totally insane. Something straight out of a comic. Don’t you think that would grab their attention?”

     Sollux considers this, and Aradia can see the gears turning. Yes, he would very much like to put an end to their asinine tour of Earth C’s history. The sooner he catches up to his buddies, the sooner he can hole up in a new house with his computer and his beehives and be left alone for the next hundred sweeps. The thought of it is enough to untense his shoulders. He nods.

     “All right, I’m in.”
     “I knew it! I knew you could still have fun!”
     “Again, I have never heard of such a phrase.”
     The nakodiles chatter in confusion. “What exactly do you intend to do, madam?”
     “Make your life easier!” she answers. Raising her hands, she turns to Sollux. “Ready when you are!”
     “Let’s do this shit.”

     They haven’t done this in a while. Technically they haven’t done it in three years, when Sollux overexerted himself so much that he collapsed in a goopy puddle of his own blood. Aradia retains a pang of fear that Sollux will overwork himself again. It’s different this time, she tells herself. They’re not flinging a meteor away from a space-warping dog at the speed of light, they’re just giving a couple of moons a polite nudge in the opposite direction.

     For them, it feels like déjà vu as they focus on Aglibol-B and Morrigan-S3, the two tiny satellites that tug upon Earth C’s shores. To the nakodiles, it looks like a couple of maniacs are staring and training their hands on something invisible in the distance.

     Then the two moons spark with color. It’s hard to tell past the sheets of mist that hang over the sea, but they’re softly flickering with maroon and gold, like an iridescent halo that traces their edges. 

     The nakodiles pause their work to gaze up at the sky, and for a moment nothing happens. Aradia and Sollux push their hands back in unison, and the moons appear – smaller? Fainter? It’s hard to tell. The ocean roils, and for a fleeting second the nakodiles are fearful that a great tidal wave is gearing up to crash upon them. Nothing of the sort happens, though. Instead, the tide along Terranova recedes. Not by a lot, but enough to prevent the daily destruction of their settlement.

     “Why, the Sea has turned her face from us! ” cries one.
     “The mighty beast of the Ocean has withdrawn her talons,” marvels another.
     “You’re fucking welcome,” Sollux grumbles.

     Aradia turns to look up at the city. Along the wall, people are pointing and gaping at the phenomenon in the sky. The moons shine with the leftover colors of their shared telekinesis, and after a few seconds they fade away. Trolls make sounds of awe – a few of them are filming on their phones. Yes, yes! This is exactly the kind of reaction she was hoping for. With any luck this will end up in the news, which will spread across the globe, which will become mythologized, which will attract the attention of the others. They are well on their way to being promoted. Next stop, capital-O Originators!

     “What do we do now?” Sollux asks. “Wait for them to time travel to this exact point and give us shit?”
     “I can’t imagine Jade put the moons there without a great deal of forethought and calculation,” Aradia replies. “So my guess is that they’ll have quite a lot to say about our rearranging their things.”
     “So we wait?”
     “So we wait.”

 

     They sit side by side on the pebble-strewn shore. The ocean mist is still obscuring the stars, but more trolls are starting to appear. They come down the stairs and sit in the sand, all in the hopes that they will catch another glimpse of that strange astronomical anomaly. And as the nakodiles set back to work with the confidence that high tide won’t undo all their work, another handful of trolls offer to help. The soft sounds of hammering mallets and handsaws can be heard over the rhythmic lapping of the water.

     After a while – almost an hour, to be precise – Sollux is almost tired of waiting. He’s got his earbuds in again and he’s getting antsy, but Aradia has been staring intently at the moons all this time. As he’s about to open his mouth to complain, he’s surprised by Aradia suddenly seizing his arm.

     “There!” she shouts. “There, I told you!”
     “What, what is it?”

     Trolls and nakodiles alike turn to face the sky, and what they see is another miracle altogether. The moons are glowing again, but with a different hue. They’re lit up with a light trace of chartreuse green, a bitter, sour apple shade reminiscent of the Green Sun. Aradia doesn’t have to guess who it is. Someone’s had their possessions misplaced, and she’s setting them back where they belong.

     “What are you looking at. Seriously.”
     “I’m looking at our plan working perfectly!” she cries. Sollux fusses when Aradia gives him a rib-cracking hug. “It worked, it worked! Why didn't we think of this before?”
     “Because we’re dumb?”
     “You’re dumb!”

     Aradia continues hugging Sollux, and he falls limp like a ragdoll, because that’s really all you can do when she gets like this. It was like this when they were moirails, and it was like this when they traveled the bubbles with only each other for company. Many things have changed in Sollux Captor’s life, but at the end of it all, on the other side of the black hole, he’s thankful that Aradia Megido has stayed the same. Even if they’re not moirails. He’s thankful that he doesn’t need one singular word to define how he feels about her, his oldest friend. It doesn’t need a descriptor. And although he doesn’t say so, he knows Aradia feels the same.

     The moons above the ocean are glowing a lovely shade of jade green. Soon, they’ll be able to see their friends again. Soon, everything will fall into place.

Chapter Text

 

The following tale is based upon a series of 5016-5018 periodical records that dramatized the events herein. Later corroborations in The Mayoral Missive alleged that the initial reports were inaccurate. Nevertheless, this is the version of the tale that has left the most indelible cultural mark.

 

 

     A long time ago, there was a seaside settlement along the shore of a certain island, where many consorts lived a merry life. They prided themselves in working hard, and nary could one be seen resting throughout the day. All hours of the day and night did they toil, and this made them content, for it was in their work that they were allowed the grace to live.

     For it was since olden days that the shore of the village was home to a great beast of a creature, a monster they called the Second Cetus, for it was a massive creature of great width and length, with many fronds and tentacles that reached far into the deep. The beast hunted for its meals day and night, and as it swam around the perimeter of its territory, it disturbed the waves with the movement of its colossal tail. Thus the sea would rise and fall in accordance with the monster’s whims, and the consorts were stricken with the rising of the tide that washed away their homes.

     Many had attempted over the centuries to convince the consorts to leave, to nestle farther up shore, or to reinforce their settlement against the ravaging of the tide. However, the consorts felt themselves beholden to the sea beast, after whom they named the Sea surrounding their home. As they labored to rebuild their homes between the capricious tides, they threw out sacrifices into the ocean for the Second Cetus to sup upon, for it was their belief that sating its hunger would relieve the severity of the tides. But no matter how much food they tossed into the water, the beast would not deviate from its routine. Cetus continued to hunt, the tides continued to ebb and flow, and the consorts continued to rebuild the ruins of their home.

     It came to be that the consorts of this village passed two hundred years of ceaseless toiling. Generations had lived and died in that time, so much so that the consorts forgot what it was like not to rebuild one’s home all hours of the day. To them it was normal, and they were happy to go about life like this forever. Though the consorts were content with their lot, the many trolls with whom they shared the island worried for their well-being. The Trollian Sphere decided to invite the assistance of two Originators who might mollify their troubles.

     Shortly, two gods arrived at the seaside village. The Mage of Doom and Maid of Time were summoned to deal with the issue of Cetus, for the pair was quite tenacious and had dealt with many beasts in their time wandering the vast emptiness beyond the Veil. With their tremendous powers combined, it was the hope of the trolls that the Mage and Maid would be the ones to put an end to the consort’s toils.

     So it was on one summer day that the Mage and Maid met with the local trolls of the island. The Mage was tall and slender, with dark green robes draping his body, stamped with the black symbol of Doom. The Maid sparkled like a ruby star, her wings shedding fine glitter wherever she went. The two were met with great humility and praise, and were bestowed many gifts upon their arrival.

A satchel of golden crowns for your troubles, Lady Maid , said the mayor of the village.
– And a casket of the richest honey for your assistance, Lord Mage, said her advisor.

     The Originators bade the retinue to stand. The Maid was adorned in many deep hues of crimson and vermilion, and as she beckoned the trolls to her feet it was as though she was cloaked in the carmine hues of the geranium. 

It is no trouble for us to aid the people of our Sphere, said the Maid, and we are glad to help whenever we might. Tell us, what is the nature of the consorts’ despair?
– The consorts know not that they despair, explained the mayor. They sacrifice their livelihood and their resources to a beast that lives beneath the sea, and believe it to cause the rising of the tide, which routinely destroys their homes.
– How terrible, lamented the Maid, and might they not move the location of their settlement?
– The consorts are bonded to the beast, Lady Maid, and fear retribution should they stray from the sea.

     At this, the Mage nodded sagely.

Then the problem lies not with the foolhardy consorts, but the monster that dwells in the waves, said he. Their troubles will be alleviated with its absence.     
– Aye, Lord Mage, but the consorts do not know what it is to live without the beast, said the mayor’s advisor. They do not know what it is to live up above the shore, beyond the wall where we are spared from the ravaging of the sea. If you relocate the beast, you may cause more harm than good.
– Well said, Lady Mayor, and duly noted, nodded the Maid. Then, at your leisure, we will see to the aid of your neighbors.

     The two Originators were pleased to have been summoned. The Maid was a great believer in the kind hearted nature of her Sphere, and it gave her joy to see that the trolls of the isle were concerned for the consorts, though they interacted little in their daily life. The Mage was content to travel wherever the Maid may go, but was needed for this task on account of his incredible powers. Few of his kind possessed psionics of such a scale, and the Maid brought him along for the assistance he could provide. The mayor and her retinue led the two Originators down to the beach, where the consorts were hard at work mending the latest destruction of the tide.

– See how they labor so, gestured the mayor. They have no time to rest nor idle.
– A sad existence to be sure, said the Mage, who was wont to idle. And you have spoken to the consorts on our behalf?
– Certainly, but they hear not our reason.

     At this, the Maid approached one of the toiling consorts. Its scarlet scales shone in the midday sun, and it appeared to be exhausted. The Maid doubted it would be able to work for much longer without respite.

– My friend, do you not tire from your drudgery? asked she.
– Certainly not madam Maid, for all of my labors are for good reason. 
– And for what reason might this be?
– Why, the cycle to which we are born and the cycle with which we die. It is Cetus’ will that the ocean rises and falls, and that we work to rebuild our homes. For our labors are not satisfactory to her, otherwise she may cease her daily destruction. It is our hope through diligence and sacrifice that we appease her.

     The Maid shook her head. This would simply not do. She consulted with the Mage, and after some time they devised a solution for their plight. In their ignorance, the consorts blamed the beast Cetus for the natural flow of the ocean’s tide. Indeed, it was the twin moons themselves that were responsible. Maid and Mage met once more with the mayor and her council, and it was agreed upon that a slight adjustment of the satellites may be the key. If they were displaced very slightly, their plan would not disturb the other inhabitants of the land.

     That night, as the consorts caught a brief rest from their work, Maid and Mage returned to the shore. The consorts would only remain asleep for a short time, after which they would wake again to resume their construction. So they worked quickly, and with their combined powers lit the moons up with a brilliant shade of gold.

     So sparkling and bright were the moons that all who spotted them were amazed by their beauty. All across the land and sea, the Four Spheres looked to the night sky and saw the dazzling new colors of the moons. With only the most modest of nudges, the two Originators set the moons farther away from the sea. 

     As they had hoped, the sea began to withdraw. There was a great roar from the waves as they drew back, and the many trolls sighed with happiness to see their comrades unburdened. However, it was not the moons that had caused this change. Out on the horizon, where the moonlight kissed the rippling ocean, a great mass rose from the water. It was the beast Cetus, in all its terrible wonder. It had been agitated by the movement of the sea, and was now rearing its head to investigate. At the sound of its cries, the consorts began to awaken.

Hear her awful cries, said one consort, we have fallen idle in our duties and incited her wrath!
– Halt your busying, commanded the Mage. It is through no fault of your own that the beast is disturbed. See how the moons have changed their course, and have drawn her out to sea.

     The consorts marveled to see Cetus breach the black water. As they watched, Maid and Mage discovered that the monster was not angry to have been moved. Rather, it was entranced with the shining of the golden moons. It lifted its beak to the stars and croaked something like a whale song, something low and mournful and full of wonder.

The beast approves of your powers, laughed the mayor. See how she’s transfixed with its might!

     Transfixed it was indeed. Cetus bellowed a mighty sound that echoed across the waves, and soon disappeared again beneath the sea. As it did so, Maid and Mage saw the beast swim farther away from the shore. It was off to chase the moons, whose beautiful hues must have appeared like some delicious yellow fish. In time, it was sure to lose its way and fail to return to the shore.

– Now, my friends, the beast has found another pasture, said the Maid. Build your homes in the morn, after you have had some rest, and take comfort in knowing that your labors will soon be over.
– Cetus has found no further use for us, said the eldest of all the consorts, and if she needs us no longer, then we have no use for the old ways. Let us rewrite our history, and start fresh as a new people.

 

     And so it was that the consorts restored their homes for the final time, having no need to fear the high tide. The beast Cetus never returned to the isle, for it was so enchanted by the golden moons that it continued its pursuit across the Skaian Ocean until it could swim no longer and had to rest in the Violet Trench. It is said that even now, Cetus continues her hunt for the moons, still mistaking them for some tantalizing meal. It is for this reason that once a year, the moons still light up with a golden hue when their paths along the stars align just so. In this way, the Mage and Maid make good on their vow to the consorts of that island town, and ensure the safety of all its people.



 

The end.

Chapter Text

In his twilight years, resting comfortably in retirement on the rocky shores of Derspit-upon-Yale, the Mayor was asked by a girl in his employment when the Originators would return. The Mayor had lived through the original Session, he had walked the dusty sands of the Earth before our Earth, for centuries he lived with the knowledge of Prospit and Derse, of the children who grew into Gods. He watched them flourish into deities, watched them conquer Suns and birth Universes. His wisdom, along with the sharp wit and determination of the Postal Minister, allowed our society to bloom from nothing. When, the girl asked, did the Mayor expect to see his dearest friends once again? Would they return to rule, to guide their people to a new golden age?

The Mayor had always remained staunchly silent on the subject of his saintly cohorts. Though he was loathe to be praised or venerated as one of the Originals to pass through the Door of Victory, the Mayor was steadfast in affirming the godhood of the humans and trolls with whom he had formed a sacred bond. It was his great respect and love for them that pursed the Mayor’s chitinous lips forever –  he would never speak a word of their private lives, he would not elaborate on their personalities, their affectations, or the words the Light-Seer passed on through her great Tome. The Mayor lived in a time where kingdoms fell and planets burned due to the worship of idols – civilizations buckled under the heavy hope and waiting for fabled heroes. He did not wish the same for the new world he called home.

As he contemplated the girl’s questions, sparkling brown Tab swirling in his glass, the Mayor gazed over the hazy shadow of the Liberty hoisting her lamp above the rugged ocean waves. Then he looked upon her and smiled benignly, and stated simply that the golden age was already here.

It isn’t right to rely on heroes and gods to carry you through life, he told the girl. What mattered was that their sacrifices were not in vain. The long and tortuous Game tore their lives asunder, it splintered them apart and brought worlds to their knees, and they fled with the hope that whatever they gave life to would be better. So they placed Earth into the hands of the wise and told them, make us proud

Throughout centuries, the Originators have appeared before the people only to vanish again into the ether. The lives they have touched become those of legend, but when they disappear once more, there are always those left aching for the Gods to return. This is, in essence, the sentiment the girl conveyed to the Mayor. Did the Originators not love their people? Did they not wish to guide them in the correct direction, to teach them to be just and true?

Oh, the Mayor said, but the people of this world are already just and true. They come from the lineage of gods, placed here in faith that they would create a marvelous and fair society. A truly kind soul does not need a hero in a colorful cloak to guide them. And while it is perfectly respectable to venerate them, to love them for the effort they made to forge a safe Universe without subjugation or tyranny, we should not wait with bated breath for their arrival. For the Gods walk among us as we speak.

It was his modesty and humility that made the Mayor a hero for many centuries. We may never know what knowledge was lost when the Mayor expired, leaving many stories of the Originators untold. His attitude was shared among those of his kind who traveled with him through the Door – the Postal Minister would not boast of her quest for vengeance against the treacherous Jack Noir, the Carapacians and consorts of the Yellow Yard carried the tale of the Witch’s Long Solitude to their graves. Though they be gods, still they have the hearts of mortals. They laugh, they weep, they mourn, they yearn. They do not hold all the answers for us, and perhaps we would not be better off if they ruled us from a golden palace. After all, the Mayor loathed kings above all.

 

We hope you enjoyed reading the tales of our Originators through our civilization, whether you believe them wholeheartedly or no. In the cases of tales that are contested or vary heavily from region to region, we have compiled extensive notes and citations in the appendix of this book. Our sources make for excellent reading, especially for those who wish to know where the Originators may appear next.

When will we see the Gods again? Time only knows, and Time keeps its secrets well. Perhaps you may be one of the lucky few to look upon their faces, and perhaps, one day, you will tell tales of them yourself.

Chapter Text

     The year 5228 After Victory is home.

 

     Home is a seaside village northeast of New Vienna, which overlooks a vast expanse of clear water. On a sunny day, if you have the right kind of binoculars, you can see all the distant islands that make up the Maidenstar Keys. Breitensee did not have many residents when Jade Harley first visited in 5219 – 5220 maybe? It’s so hard to keep the years straight. The beach was dotted with empty wooden shells that yawned all night with the sighing of the coastal breeze. Jade Harley has wandered the world and stepped through many centuries, and at the end of their journey she found that she missed the ocean most of all. And Jade Harley likes a challenging project, because fixing things on the outside is almost enough to fix yourself on the inside. So she fixes a rotting hovel and makes it her home.

     She’s lived here for a while now, but Breitensee hasn’t changed. There’s a boardwalk that shares a short breadth of land with her house, and when Carapacians clatter down the planks to set up picnic blankets and umbrellas, they shout a hello to the friendly Witch, who hides her ears beneath sun hats and flouncy scarves. Life is very simple, and does not involve reshaping the culture of Earth C. When given the choice between making life-altering decisions about jadeblood cloistering and maintaining her tomato garden, Jade will always choose her tomato garden.

 

     Today is warm and cloudless. On the couch, Jade is curled up and thumbing through the pages of an old birthday present. Its pages have gotten soft at the edges, and the spine creaks when she opens it. She’s only owned this book for five years, but it coughs and complains like an old man. Exactly the type of tome that Rose Lalonde would pick out. Its red ribbon marker is evocative of a spellbook, a shitty summoning manual for wannabe wizards. It’s one of Jade’s favorite possessions.

     She could recite these stories word for word if she wanted to, so she skims without really reading. Her fingers brush over the full-page illustrations, fanciful gilded depictions of gods who don’t quite look like they’re supposed to. As she reads, she hears the steady sound of hissing from across the living room and into the kitchen, where Davepeta is frying something in a pan. It smells like burning cheese and vegetables. Whatever it is, it flips successfully in midair and lands with a plop that produces a column of steam.

     “Oh hell nyeah!” They turn to look at Jade in a did-you-just-freakin’-see-that way. “Did you just freakin’ see that?”
     “I see you potentially setting off the smoke detector is what I see,” she teases.
     “Breakfast purrito, breakfast purrito,” they sing-song to themself, “Jade is jea-lous of my breakfast purr-ito.”

     After some time, they emerge from the kitchen with food piled high on one of the plates Jade made during a brief period of interest in ceramics. It’s painted with a green glaze, and has sustained a few chips in its lifetime from being dropped. Davepeta tosses themself onto the couch beside her.

     “Readin’ that thing again?” they ask through a mouthful of food. They peer to read over her shoulder. 
     Crumbs are shed on her shirt. She dusts them off. “Yeah, sometimes I just get the sudden desire to pick it off the shelf.”
     “What’s your favorite? I think mine’s the uh… the um.... oh, The Prince’s Furry.
     “The Prince’s Folly?”
     “Yes! I like all the stories about Dirk beclaws they are always about him fucking up.” Davepeta twirls their fork. “I bet your favorite is… Seer and Thief at Meteor Lake.
     “That’s a good one. Sentimental and romantic,” she says, “if you take it at face value, and weren’t there for the aftermath.”
     “Sigh,” Davepeta says without actually sighing, “and of course there’s the timeless classic, The Witch and the Pawterfall, I love that one.”
     “It’s all right.”
     “You never like the ones about yourself.”

     Davepeta doesn’t quite get it because Davepeta doesn’t have a religious sect dedicated to them. That would be an underground subset of The Knight’s Templar, the weirdo outcast devotees who depict the Knight of Time as taking the forms of crow and lion. A coven of cultists reared their heads when Jade finally settled in Breitensee, when she was no longer leaning on her sister or on Dave and Karkat but instead finally relying on herself. The Cult of the Witch. It makes her snort. Bare-chested, silver-adorned fools smeared with black powder and sweat. Not the kind of devotees she would’ve wanted. But she keeps her head down, and during the last census it was confirmed that one thousand, one hundred and two Jade Harleys live within this electorate alone. She can be anonymous here. Without the Green Sun, she can be normal. She can just live.

     “It isn’t that I don’t like them,” Jade says with a wishy-washy shake of her head. “It’s that they’re all very… very….”
     “Glamorous! Fantastical! Aggrowlandizing!”
     “Yes! All of that!”
     “So pawdest. So humble.”

     Jade flips back to the flyleaf, where Rose wrote a little birthday message among the publishing information. She first saw this book while window-shopping with Roxy, right before her twenty-third birthday. Roxy then tattled to Rose, who went back by herself to buy it for her. They said you had your eye on it, she wrote in glittery purple gel pen that still shines in the right light, but were a bit wary of the stories you might find inside

     That was mostly true. Jade wanted very badly to read it when she saw it, with its leather cover and gold embellishments. For the same reason that she doesn’t watch certain movies or visit certain museums, though, she does not seek out subject matter in which she might find herself being venerated by people who don’t know her. It feels yucky. It feels embarrassing. 

     Jade Harley doesn’t view herself as Queen of Wolves, Sunswallower, the Witch of the Long Solitude. She’s Jade Harley, a twenty-eight-year-old mostly-human lesbian with a green thumb and a knack for picking up new hobbies. But when she was very small, when the world was only a vast and blue expanse of ocean, her friends were like giants to her. They were gods among men. When she reads about them in such lofty terms, held up like the heroes in a fairytale, it lets her return to that simpler time. With the sun in the window, and the dog on her bed, and her eyes glued reverently to the Pesterchum screen.

     “Whatcha gonna do today?”
     Jade half-closes the book so that the front cover rests against her thumb. “Oh, I don’t know! Check on the bees, I guess, and do some pruning. Look at schools again, if I have the energy.”
     “I like the bees, they're very silly. I like your silly bee-keeping hat.”
     “I like my silly bee-keeping hat too, because it keeps me from getting stung to shit.”

     Jade Harley has a knack for picking up new hobbies. Beekeeping is a recent one. She found herself in a situation where the opportunity to take a hive off of Sollux’s hands was dumped in her lap, so she didn’t have to buy much equipment herself. Like ceramics, it might not end up being her thing. The bees don’t seem to like their queen, and Jade dreads coming up with a way to be rid of her. 

     “Well don’t tucker yourself out before we gotta meet June for dinner.”
     “That’s today?” she squawks. Davepeta nods and shoves too much of their burrito into their mouth. “I completely forgot!”
     “You ‘ave a b’ue band on your fing’r fer June,” they point out before nearly choking on half-chewed food.
     “Yes, but the band is on my ring finger for Saturday, not my middle finger for Friday.”
     “Comp’icated shystem,” they respond between coughs.
     “Oh, well. I’m excited to see her anyway. I was a little miffed that she didn’t want help moving into her new place. I really want to see it!” 
     “I can’t believe she lasted so long in that shithole.”
     “It wasn’t a shithole when I lived with her,” she says.
     “Nah, it was only kinda shitty.”

     For nearly a year, or what felt like it, their party turned forward the hand of Time and lurched through the centuries, a band of ageless, baby-faced trickster gods changing fate at their whims. They camped in tents along riversides, stayed in allegedly haunted bed and breakfasts run by withered old women, squatted in basements of abandoned homes. Now, finally, they’ve all begun to settle. Even the ones to whom “settling” seemed like a death sentence. Pieces are falling into place. 

     “I hope June likes my housewarming present,” Jade murmurs. “Do you think it’s too much?”
     “I think it’s perfect, and she’ll love it, ‘cause you’re her sister and she lo–ves y–ou.”

     At this, Davepeta nuzzles the top of their head into Jade’s neck. Their horns are cold. She looks off to the side of the stairs, where a parcel is wrapped in brown paper. It’s a painting she made for her sister, in the greenhouse where the sunlight dries the paint quicker. She stared at the canvas for a while, mechanical pencil twirling in her hand, not sure what to create. In the end, she settles for the forest in the Isle of Scales, which is nearly as untouched as the time she met Jack Noir many years before. He probably isn’t alive anymore, and she hasn’t returned to check. In the painting, past all the many tall trees colored with yellows and golds and bright greens, you can see the shape of two children in the distance. Half-hidden, two sisters who have met again at the end of a long adventure apart. 

     She’s trying to get better at depicting scenery. Hopefully June likes it.

 

     Later, when Davepeta is scraping their scraps into the compost bin, Jade looks down at The Collected Tales of Our Glorious Originators sitting on the coffee table. She’s got her dirty apron wrapped around her waist now, and she’s preparing to don her gardening gloves. A yellow scarf is tied into her hair, masking Becquerel’s fluffy ears. She doesn’t look like an Originator. She just looks like herself.

     Is this what happens after the after? After the curtain closes and the audience clears out of the theater, is this life all that’s left?

     “Hey,” she calls into the kitchen, “do you wanna help me with the bees?”
     “Bees! Bees! Bees!” Davepeta bounces on their feet. “Hell nyeah I do. Do I get a silly hat?”
     “You get a silly hat! I’m not sure if it’s gonna fit over your horns though.”
     “I am defurnitely going to need sturdy purrtection if I go out there. You’re gonna ask me to assassinate their crappy queen, aren’tcha?”
     “Shh, don’t talk about Operation Henry out loud, they might hear you.”

     They waltz out into the living room where Jade is perched on the couch, pinning their fluffy ginger hair back with a bobby pin.

     “Meetcha out there,” they say with a quick peck on Jade’s cheek.
     “See ya,” she says.

     And then they gambol out the door.

     Jade Harley did not create a waterfall from nothing, despite what the inhabitants of the Isle of Scales might tell you. She did not convince a grown, speaking Mother Grub to allow Carapacians to care for her. She did not turn a man into a dog. The Green Sun sputtered out quite some time ago, and finally, this body is not a body she shares with some supernatural being. It’s just her in there, me myself and I, and at one time this might have been a nightmare. But being Jade Harley, normal civilian, has been an adventure in and of itself. Earth C has so much to offer. History is unfolding before their very eyes, so many new sights and sounds and people and things to discover, and she hasn’t seen the half of it yet. 

     The after after the after – after the credits roll, after the audience goes home and writes their critical reviews, after all of that, there is this life. This routine, this comfort, this home. And Jade thinks she likes it. You don’t have to spend your life exploring temples and shrinking down planets and wapping demons with newspapers to prove that you are worth something, that your time is being well spent. It’s enough to tend to your garden with someone who loves you. It’s enough to visit your sister and tell her you love her. It’s this.

     Jade picks up the storybook and sets it back on the shelf.